Raising Awareness About Substance Use Disorder

September is National Recovery Month. When it started in 1989, the goal was promoting and supporting new evidence-based treatment and recovery practices, celebrating the nation’s strong and proud recovery community, and honoring the dedication of service providers and communities who make recovery in all its forms possible.

It’s been a mission of St. Clair Hospital physicians to increase public awareness surrounding substance use disorder treatment and recovery. Two such advocates are Dr. Julia D’Alo, emergency medicine physician at St. Clair Hospital and Chief Medical Officer at Gateway Rehab, and Dr. Kristen Livesey, physician hospitalist at St. Clair Hospital. Here, the duo share important information for anyone to takeaway.

COVID-19’s Impact on Substance Abuse Disorder

Dr. Livesey explains that the pandemic induced a rise in substance use, substance use disorders, and overdoses. She calls it an “epidemic inside the pandemic.”

“We don’t necessarily have the full picture yet. But some data from 2021 suggests that in the beginning of the pandemic, there was a 40% rise in opioid-related overdoses and a 30% increase in opioid-related deaths. That’s been fairly consistent with what I’ve experienced in the hospital setting and why it’s so important to talk about this topic. It’s really something that hits home for our community.”

St. Clair and Gateway Rehab: Two Forces Working as One

St. Clair Health has a partnership with Gateway Rehab, a collaboration that arose when Dr. Alan Yeated, St. Clair CMO Emeritus and member of the Board of Directors and Community Benefit Committee, formed a small work group and was tasked with finding a community partner to develop a recovery program. This program centers on and around a certified recovery specialist (CRS). The CRS is available 24/7.

“A certified recovery specialist is a person who is credentialed. They have personal experience with their own substance use disorder recovery. And, they are able to offer insight into the recovery process based on their own experiences,” states Dr. D’Alo. “Because they’ve been right where that patient is in that moment, they have this unique perspective that allows them to function as a motivator, role model, advocate, and mentor. The close collaboration between St. Clair and Gateway continues and the community benefits as a result.”

Eliminating the Stigma Surrounding Substance Use Disorder

One challenge in helping individuals living with substance use disorder is the stigma that surrounds it. Dr. Livesey encourages healthcare providers to really think about the patient in front of them, as well as the language they use when interacting with them.

“There is a person in front of you who has a substance use disorder, rather than thinking of the person as an ‘addict.’ It really involves coming to understand the reason the patient is here and the factors contributing that we can help with, instead of just seeing them as ‘that person’ with substance use disorder,” she notes.

St. Clair provides ongoing education for nurses, physicians, and social workers in order to maintain a more caring and compassionate approach to patients’ needs. Dr. Livesey and Dr. D’Alo are dedicated to ensuring every person who needs help receives it—without judgment.

“I always remind them that recovery is very possible. They may have experienced some recovery in their own lives and some period of sobriety. But, I acknowledge it takes a lot of work. I assure them that I can help separate them from their substance and keep them comfortable. I remind them their life has value, and we’ll be with them through the whole process,” shares Dr. D’Alo. “I think the starting point is telling them they need to start the process of forgiving themselves. They need to leave any shame behind and they need to start the journey, knowing sometimes it’s minute by minute or hour by hour. But in the end, it can add up to a lifetime of recovery. And that’s really the life they’re meant to live.”