By Hannah Esqueda
Image via Flickr
Editor and Author’s note: For nearly a decade Merced County has suffered from increasing rates of drug abuse and drug-related deaths, surpassing even the latest state and national rates. The ripple effects of this dangerous trend have grown far beyond the individual addicts themselves as parents, children, friends and neighbors are also scarred by the battle with addiction. Even with 65 percent of Proposition 47 statewide savings (an estimated $34M in 2016-2017) going into mental health and diversion programs, the area continues to lack adequate substance abuse treatment programs. Through the four-part #RecoveryinMerced series, We’Ced hopes to focus on the path to recovery and examine how public health officials, community members and former addicts are working together to heal their community.
MERCED, Calif. — Historically viewed as a personal flaw or weakness, addiction has been treated only in recent years as a mental health issue to which medical resources should be dedicated. Although the science behind drug abuse and addiction has come a long way in the last decade, many within the Merced recovery community worry that there still aren’t enough resources to properly treat the local population.
According to the Merced County Department of Public Health, the county’s rate for drug-related deaths per 100,000 residents jumped from 9.7 in 2006, to 15 in 2013–an increase for the country from 25 to 40 deaths. That rate eclipsed state and national drug-related death rates, with California reporting 11.4 deaths per 100,000 residents and the United States seeing 14.1 deaths per 100,000.
“We don’t even have a detox center here. The last time the county had a detox center was the one at the old county hospital two decades ago,” said Anna C. (Anna is in recovery and We’Ced agreed to only use her first name and last initial to help protect her identity.)
Instead, Merced County has contracted with Aegis Treatment Center since 2005 for 350 detox treatment slots annually. The private group uses an outpatient model, meaning patients do not receive 24-hour care.
The local Aegis program specializes in treating opioid addiction through a combination of methadone and counseling services and uses a long-term care model, said Tabatha Haywood, a counselor with the Merced County Behavioral Health and Recovery Services.
While Aegis serves about 500 people each year in Merced County, recovering addicts like Anna say many residents attempting sobriety still end up leaving the area, traveling north to Modesto or other larger cities, in order to receive inpatient treatment.
Currently there are no county plans to create an inpatient detox facility, but Haywood said the department is in the early stages of discussing the need for a non medical detox program with a residential provider.
While the Merced numbers are alarming, the ripple effect of the county’s drug-abuse problem is potentially even more severe.
Longtime residents in the City of Merced are quick to comment on the rapid decay seen in some neighborhoods around town. The blight — often a result of drug use and related activities — is concentrated in South Merced, near Highway 99 where many of the city’s low-income and minority communities have historically lived.
“If you don’t know about 16th Street, that’s where all the prostitutes are, that’s where everything that you don’t ever want your children to see, happens,” Anna said.
A lifelong resident of Merced, Anna said she began experimenting with drugs at age 15, quickly moving from marijuana to methamphetamines. From there, the addiction took hold of her life, leading her into several abusive relationships and brushes with the law.
“Eventually, I had a room and was living with my daughter over on 16th Street at the Gateway Motel,” Anna said. “I had my daughter in the middle of that, because I had nowhere else to go.”
While she’s now clean and attending classes at Merced Community College, Anna said her road to recovery was difficult, especially given the limited resources in Merced County.
At one point, Anna said her children were taken away by Child Protective Services (CPS) and the only way she could get them back was to show proof of completion at a treatment program.
She explained, “CPS wanted me to go to an out-of-town facility because I guess I knew too many people locally so they didn’t think it was safe there. But at the time I was dealing with my legal case, too, so I couldn’t leave the area.”
Anna continued, “So I was like ‘Okay, I’m supposed to go here, to Fresno to the Salvation Army and get a warrant because I’m not doing my criminal case but I’ll have my kids eventually? And then I’ll go right back to jail and lose them all over again.’”
While cases like Anna’s are complex, they are not uncommon in the world of substance abuse and recovery. Jennifer K., another recovering addict and Merced native, said she has heard from many within the local community who have experienced similar situations to Anna’s.
“There’s just not a lot of understanding or empathy in the community. There’s still a big stigma and criminalization of addicts,” she said.
While the county has made recent strides in how it treats addiction recovery, even labelling drug abuse and drug-related deaths under the mental health section of it’s 2016 Community Health Assessment, residents like Anna and Jennifer say they’d like to see more funding for local programs.
For its part, Haywood, the Merced counsellor, said the county is always looking for ways to improve recovery services. It’s currently one of only a few California communities to receive federal approval for a Drug Medi-Cal pilot program.
This program seeks to streamline care for addiction recovery services and will allow the county to more easily integrate patient’s overall medical care with specific drug and alcohol treatment, Haywood said.The pilot program was approved for federal funding last year and should run through 2020.
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) helped pave the way for the pilot program through its Medi-Cal expansion, but Haywood said it’s unclear how the program will be affected by President Donald Trump’s plans to repeal ACA.
Currently, about half of Merced County residents rely on Medi-Cal benefits for their health care needs, making it the second highest county level in the state.
But while more county-led programs would be beneficial, others within the recovery community are also hoping for a more hands-on approach.
Knitting together a community for recovering addicts is important, said Jesse Ornelas. A former addict himself, Ornelas has been a vocal proponent of more community resources for those struggling with the issue.
“Having safe spaces for 12-step meetings is very important and they’re hard to come by,” he said. “We have county facilities and the county won’t rent out the spaces to us. We depend on the community to offer those safe spaces, whether its churches or community centers.”
Ornelas said he hopes to see the county take the lead in addressing the stigma of addiction so more community groups and congregations feel comfortable sharing space with support groups.
“In my opinion, these programs are the best out there. There’s no parallel. One addict helping another is without parallel,” he said.