Great Barrington — Addiction knows no season, and the disease touches every family in the Berkshires: If you are not an individual suffering yourself, chances are you are related to or working with someone who is. “There’s no prejudice; it’s an equal-opportunity disease,” said Dr. Jennifer Michaels, medical director at the Brien Center for Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. If holidays are a time to be grateful, residents of Berkshire County can be thankful for the fact that we live in a community where people can not only get help, but where that help is also readily available. Mental illness and addiction are among the most stigmatized diseases in the world; the Brien Center is dedicated to ending the stigma in our community. Despite the wealth of resources, only 10 percent of people who could benefit from help are currently engaged in care.
“Anytime is the right time to talk about the Brien Center,” said Christine Macbeth, president and CEO at the community-based nonprofit, which has more than 90 years of history. Its mission is to provide high-quality, comprehensive behavioral health services to Berkshire residents through community-based services that promote the highest possible degree of recovery, independence and quality of life of those served. The Brien Center is Berkshire County’s largest provider of behavioral health and addiction services, employing over 500 individuals at 26 locations countywide. Its impact is far-reaching, touching over 10,000 individuals — including 4,000 children — whose lives are saved, whose illnesses are successfully treated, and who continue on as successful members of our community.
In South County, the Brien Center’s Cottage Street location is a possibly overlooked gem. “It’s hard to talk about all the good work we do because we are busy doing it,” said Megan Eldridge Wroldson, LICSW, in a recent phone interview. Wroldson, who serves as division director for adult and family services at the Brien Center, took the time to explain one of the Great Barrington location’s key services: the medication-assisted treatment program. Suboxone, a brand name for buprenorphine, is used to treat opioid addiction (an umbrella under which heroin and narcotic painkillers fall). While buprenorphine belongs to a class of drugs that help relieve symptoms of opiate withdrawal, there remains tremendous stigma around use of this substance, which is why many individuals rely on “street Suboxone” rather than risk the stigma associated with seeing a medical professional to aid in the path toward recovery. “When people come to us, they are tired of the hustling it takes to get street Suboxone,” Wroldson explained, a hustle that can be expensive and dangerous. “This is where we come up against stigma: [individuals seeking recovery] don’t want their family knowing; they don’t want employers knowing. They don’t want it on the record.” The Brien Center is poised to meet those individuals who do take the first step by inviting some safety and stability into their lives. And much of the work is facilitated by community members who understand this struggle inherently.
Robin McGraw was honored Nov. 14 at the Brien Center’s annual UNICO dinner. The Egremont resident was presented with the 2019 Community Service Award for his sustained advocacy and continuous support of the Brien Center and the community at large. In her remarks, Macbeth pointed out McGraw’s “dedication to helping individuals living with addiction, particularly Berkshire County teens who may not yet fully understand the lifelong consequences of poor decisions about substance misuse.” She went on to describe McGraw’s family’s contributions to the Brien Center’s Patrick Miller Youth Substance Abuse Prevention Program as “enabl[ing] [the Brien Center] to provide excellent and successful interventions at middle and high schools throughout the county, sparing many Berkshire youth from a lifetime of addiction.” McGraw has also joined the Berkshire County Sheriff’s Office, where he serves on the Sheriff’s Opiate Task Force and manages re-entry programs for formerly addicted inmates who are nearing the end of their sentences and will be rejoining the community.
McGraw’s strong connection to and ongoing relationship with the Brien Center stems from experience: in particular, feeling the heart-wrenching suffering of loving someone who has an active addiction. “Part of the reason Robin is so exceptionally on fire and motivated to help other people is that he witnessed the recovery of a beloved family member, and that fuels his desire to make it possible for others [to get the help they need],” said Michaels of McGraw, who has been remarkably generous and involved with the Brien Center. “He is a true champion,” Michaels said, adding, “Robin epitomizes the gift we receive when we generously give to others, [and] he recognizes that when we help other people, we fill ourselves up.” McGraw most recently supported expansion of the Brien Center’s office-based addiction treatment program in Great Barrington by funding necessary renovations to add office space at 60 Cottage St., expanding the organization’s ability to assist myriad individuals in their paths toward recovery.
In Great Barrington, this translates to very specific and concrete improvements. In addition to added staff (nursing is available five days each week as opposed to one each week at this time last year), the Brien Center believes in “wraparound” services, which treat the whole person, including the complex issues that go beyond opioid addiction and include psychological problems, family stress and access to primary care. The services also connect individuals with resources that help solve fundamental problems like completing their education, job training, and residential programs. This, perhaps, is what makes the Brien Center unique. “Yes, we are prescribing, but we are also providing support and counseling for individuals as they move forward in their recovery,” said Macbeth. And the therapy piece can’t be undersold. “It’s an important piece for those who are early on in their recovery. There are a lot of misses in recovery; we don’t give up, we support [individuals] to keep moving forward,” Macbeth added. While the Brien Center has two recovery homes in Pittsfield, one for men and one for women, and a third slated to open in North Adams just after the first of the year, Macbeth is not stopping there: “My goal in the future is to be able to open a recovery home in Great Barrington,” she said of the South County community that struggles with the same opioid crisis sweeping the rest of the county and the nation.
In short, the Brien Center is for people looking for a lifestyle change with regard to their recovery. “We are very proud of our expanded services [in South County], but the need is not over,” said Wroldson, citing the evident voids: a residential treatment program, a methadone program, and a stand-alone syringe program. “We are getting there as a community, with a real robust continuum of addiction treatment in South County, but there is still more work to do.”
“We strongly believe, when it comes to addiction, there are many doors and many paths to recovery,” said Wroldson, who advises against what she calls “self selection.” By calling the Brien Center’s main number at (413) 499-0492, experienced intake staff can help individuals get a brief idea as to the next step. In South County, that is likely a visit with a nurse or therapist in the outpatient services. There, staff is on hand five days each week to facilitate the introduction to regular Suboxone, often within 24 hours. While this service is not available on the weekends, Suboxone is available at the emergency room thanks to a Jan. 1, 2019, mandate that the drug be provided in the ER setting.
The Brien Center has partnered with Berkshire Health Systems to get this off the ground and running smoothly in Berkshire County. Fairview Hospital began prescribing Suboxone in the ER in July, a measure Wroldson calls “a life-saving opportunity” that ultimately connects the individual with further services. Individuals referred by the emergency departments will have open access to the Brien Center Monday through Friday to obtain medication for opioid use disorder and to become integrated into the Brien Center’s comprehensive addiction services.
As you prepare your Thanksgiving feast this week, and the calendar turns to December next week, take a moment to be mindful: “Holidays are triggers for many people,” Michaels reiterated. “It can be stressful to be with family, [as] a lot of times family gatherings involve alcohol and old habits.” Michaels encourages people who have the disease of addiction to make sure they have a sober network of support, and to think about a Plan B. This allows everyone to enjoy the spirit of the holidays without necessarily needing to engage in dangerous behaviors.
It’s what Michaels calls a mixed message this season: “We want people to get help, we want people to know that recovery can happen to anyone, and it’s very hard work,” she explained. “It is painful to go through the process of stopping a substance and engaging in recovery; but that’s how we evolve and change: through discomfort,” which means talking about addiction can be a story of hope and transformation and recovery. “The Brien Center is all about possibility,” Micheals reiterated. “Anyone can recover, anyone can make a change in their lives.” And Wroldson concurred: “Talking about mental health and addiction allows us to reduce stigma; when we reduce stigma, people will come and seek our services.”