In early February, the Department of Public Health (DPH) released data showing that overdose deaths from opioids dropped five percent in Massachusetts from 2016 to 2018. But there have been alarming increases in western Massachusetts, especially among Hispanics, according to the latest statistics.
In Springfield there were 80 overdose deaths among city residents in 2018—more than double the 2017 number of 38, in spite of the fact that overdose deaths declined in a majority of cities and towns across Massachusetts. Overdose deaths were also up in Chicopee, from 19 to 31, and in Holyoke, from 13 to 14. From 2017 to 2018, opioid overdose deaths in Hampden County increased from 113 to 209, and the numbers also increased in Hampshire County (from 28 to 38) and Franklin County (from 9 to 22).
“Our agency still regards the opioid overdose crisis as an epidemic, because that’s what it is,” said Jade Rivera-McFarlin, marketing and development director at Gándara Center, which provides residential, substance use, and preventative services to Hispanics, African Americans, and other culturally diverse populations. “It’s a public health emergency affecting us all—but especially our Hispanic communities,” she said.
In Springfield, Hispanic residents experienced the most dramatic increase in opioid fatalities than any other ethnic group, from 13 overdose deaths in 2017 to 39 in 2018—a 200 percent jump. White non-Hispanic overdose deaths increased 100 percent, from 16 to 32. Black non-Hispanic deaths decreased from 8 to 7 (-13 percent).
Gándara Center is dedicated to using this kind of data to identify engaging and appropriate solutions for its most vulnerable populations. For example, in the past two years, Gándara Center, Tapestry, and the Hampden County Addiction Taskforce have partnered for free community trainings in administering the overdose reversal drug Narcan. Gándara, as the statewide leader in providing substance use and mental health treatment to Hispanics, has offered bilingual Narcan trainings to make these forums more accessible to the Hispanic community.
Health officials believe that one reason for the overdose increase is the presence of the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl, which was present in 93 percent of Massachusetts overdose death cases in the first nine months of 2019. This synthetic opioid—25 to 50 times stronger than heroin—was present in 75.6 percent of the cases in 2016. In two separate incidents last November and last April, volunteers and members of Gándara Center’s Hope for Holyoke Recovery Center revived a couple of overdose victims using three doses of Narcan each. An overdose requiring multiple doses of Narcan usually indicates the presence of fentanyl.
Western Massachusetts cities were not the only ones to see a significant fatal opioid overdose increase in 2018. So has Framingham, Lawrence, and Lowell—cities with large Hispanic populations.
Some research shows that Hispanic opioid users are less likely than others to access addiction treatment medicines such as methadone and Suboxone. Hispanics have lower substance use treatment rates than other ethnic groups for a variety of reasons, including family stigma and discrimination. Gándara Center has held focus groups at its residential and recovery centers about stigma among friends and family and how it affects the individual’s treatment options. “Traditionally, in Hispanic cultures, substance use has been viewed as a private problem—dealt with within the family rather than seeking outside help,” said Rivera-McFarlin. National studies have shown that stigma is more pronounced among Hispanics than their white and black counterparts and is a significant barrier to treatment.
“At Gándara Center, we continue to aggressively seek new ways to more comprehensively serve our hard-to-reach populations, especially our Hispanic populations,” said Rivera-McFarlin. “Understanding a person’s cultural context is what our agency does well. Our culturally sensitive treatment programs help decrease some of the disparities in treatment for the Hispanic community, but it’s not going to be easy to reverse the opioid epidemic. We can start by working to eliminate barriers to care, and we work to do this every single day.”