BARNSTABLE — Parents, business leaders, law enforcement officers and doctors spoke in unison Monday during a meeting with state legislators to discuss the addiction crisis and its broader mental health care challenges on the Cape and Islands.
Their message, delivered with visible frustration, desperation and anger: We need more help.
“Our mental health system is so broken I think it needs a complete revamping,” said Barnstable police Sgt. Jennifer Ellis, supervisor of the department’s community impact unit. “If we don’t find an answer beyond what we’re doing someone is going to end up seriously injured or killed.”
Lawmakers on the Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery sat down with area residents to gather feedback about how effective local efforts aimed at stemming the tide of addiction really are in meeting the Cape’s recovery needs. The session was part of their statewide listening tour.
State Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro, who heads the committee on the Senate side, opened the discussion alongside state Reps. Marjorie Decker, D-Cambridge, and William Crocker, R-Centerville.
Of those who offered testimony, most worked in — or had colleagues in — the health care sector at the intersection of mental health and addiction services.
Area professionals renewed calls for more access to addiction treatment and mental health resources, emphasizing the connection between the two.
As someone on the front lines of the opioid crisis, Ellis spoke about the dangers of responding to 911 calls involving the severely mentally ill, whose behavior elicits repeated emergency responses.
Those individuals, often suicidal, will go on to harass police, fire and hospital staff, she said.
“None of us are really trained to manage these extremely high-risk individuals,” Ellis said.
Barnstable County Sheriff James Cummings also testified to the high rate of inmates with mental illness jailed in Barnstable County, noting it was around 60 percent.
“Putting them in a cell certainly doesn’t help their condition,” he said. “Then they violate rules, receive a sanction, and get put in even more restricted housing.”
Daniel Rodrigues, associate director of substance use services at Duffy Health Center in Hyannis, suggested there was a dearth of inpatient, residential and wraparound services on Cape Cod, particularly as it relates to keeping those who have sought help for addiction in recovery programs for the appropriate amount of time before they are left to their own devices.
“Length of stay is a huge issue,” he said. “We’re not providing enough time for folks to get the resources that they need.”
Dr. Peter Bentivegna, a surgeon at Cape Cod Hospital, said there are alternative medications to treat acute pain, and patients and health care professionals ought to explore the possibility of conducting opioid-free surgeries as a preventive measure for those at risk for addiction.
“I’m not here to condemn Purdue or the drug companies,” he said. “What I’m here to do is make you aware of the alternatives to narcotics.”