By Peter Fry
For most of us, addiction is a difficult issue to deal with. If you drink to excess or do illegal drugs, denial becomes a way of life. On the other hand, if you are close to such a person, anger and confusion tend to overwhelm everything else. Within the larger community, many prefer simple solutions, such as locking up those who use drugs, or just keeping them out of the neighborhood. To consider it simply as a disease, on the other hand, feels like abandoning personal responsibility altogether.
In any case, Brooklyn has a major problem. In 2001, there were an estimated 225,000 people in need of treatment, including more than 16,000 under the age of 18. However, only 19,000 Brooklyn residents entered long-term treatment programs that year, and not all of those completed. In other words, while over 9% of Brooklyn’s population needs some kind of treatment, few actually receive it.
To aggravate the problem, crime and substance abuse have become closely entwined. For example, in 2003 70% of male arrestees in Manhattan tested positive for illegal drugs, and an estimated 81% of New York State parolees need treatment. Though incarcerating people does keep them off the streets awhile, they eventually return to the communities they came from. In 2003, for instance, an estimated 14,000 people were released into New York City by the state prison system. Those numbers, of course, do not include the hundred thousand plus who pass through Riker’s Island every year.
Two facts need to be kept in mind. First, certain communities receive the brunt of the problem. In the most severely affected neighborhoods of Brooklyn, adults are ten times more likely to end up hospitalized with drug problems than in the least affected neighborhoods. This high concentration of addiction within certain communities feeds into their cycles of poverty, crime and hopelessness.
Secondly, the children of those who abuse drugs or alcohol become the unseen victims. Not only have many been physically or sexually abused, they also will likely abuse drugs or alcohol themselves, and end up in jail or prison far more often than their peers. The problem thus passes from generation to generation.
Statistics, however, cannot tell the whole story. Take the Hispanic inmate who, like perhaps 90% of female prisoners, has been abused sexually or physically as a child and an adult. She has three children in foster care, is about to lose them because she is incarcerated, and actually dreads being released from prison. Unlike the men she knows, she experiences no pride in having been imprisoned: she simply feels herself to be a loser, with no education or job prospects, and absolutely no confidence in herself.
Or consider the white man in his forties, who having been in and out of jail, now sits in a community-based treatment program and tells you he has been mentally ill all his life. He has no prospects of getting a job, and will be going on SSI (disability insurance) when he finishes the program and returns to a world with no real place for him. Then there is the African-American male who, having served years for a violent felony, finally breaks down and cries when talking to his counselor, because he has never dared show weakness to his fellow inmates. He too is a father, rarely sees his children, and has no idea of how to be a parent.
Treatment, in other words, is as challenging on the personal level as it is for society. Even when someone enters a program, there is no guarantee that he or she will succeed in making the breakthrough needed to live a drug-free and productive life. Though we now know what kind of treatment programs work best overall, the process for any individual remains an uncertain journey.
What then can we do, as members of the community?
First of all, Brooklyn needs more treatment programs, of all kinds: out-patient clinics, residential programs, programs for women and children, programs for parolees, probationers and those incarcerated, and transitional housing. We do not need to sit back and wait for government agencies or legislators to act. After all, treatment has been scientifically proven to work, and even to save society a great deal of money. What argument is more compelling than that?
Perhaps even more vitally, we also need to find ways to support those programs which do exist. For when people struggling with recovery go back into the community, what often determines their success or failure is the support network they have. A number of Brooklyn churches have taken the lead on this issue, yet all of us can play our part, whether as businesses, service organizations, or simply concerned individuals.
Perhaps no task is more important, or more rewarding.
In the next issue, Peter Fry, Community Liaison for New York Therapeutic Communities, Inc., looks at treatment options available to Brooklyn residents.
The Third Annual Serendipity Bed-Stuy Health Fair- September 10, from 10 am to 4 pm- Herbert Von King Park (AKA Tompkins Park)- Lafayette and Tompkins Avenue, Brooklyn- Healthy Lives, Families and Communities!