By Chris Coudriet, New Hanover County Manager
In today’s world, the likelihood that you or those closest to you have been impacted, either directly or indirectly, by mental health or substance use issues is almost guaranteed.
Long before the pandemic changed how we went about our lives, these problems existed. COVID amplified these issues, bringing them out of the shadows and into the forefront of our daily life. Isolation, loneliness and self-medication for people of all ages have been commonly discussed topics over the last two-plus years. Between January and July of this year alone, there were 15 deaths by suicide in New Hanover County and another 36 deaths directly tied to opioid use. Additionally, 299 people needed medical attention after overdosing on a narcotic substance.
As health and mental welfare professionals dedicated to assisting others while trying to eliminate stigmas often associated with these issues work tirelessly to combat these problems, our team at New Hanover County knew we had the opportunity and obligation to help.
At a September 6 meeting, the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved the Mental Health and Substance Use Disorder Strategy. This multi-layered plan outlines the needs of individuals and families before, during and after someone takes steps to address mental health or substance use disorders. This document lays the groundwork for how these initiatives will be organized and funded.
Over a five-month period, a stakeholder group featuring medical providers, the judicial system, community partners and multiple county departments met every two weeks to discuss the needs of our community. I’m grateful that so many individuals and organizations took time from their busy lives to help us navigate this complex matter.
These sessions dug deep into where things stand currently in our community, looking into what is working and is not. This diverse group heard from those on the frontlines about the successes and shortfalls. And, more importantly, they listened as individuals and families who have sought out and gone through treatment explained what that process is like. These local experts and individuals with lived experience in this realm presented impactful information that drove home just how important it is to get the right support and how transformative these efforts have the potential to be.
Following much discussion, the goals for this framework became clear – educate people on how they can get help and when that help is needed, make treatment easy to access while supporting those involved in the treatment, and make sure recovery is sustainable, not just a temporary fix.
Make no mistake, this isn’t going to be an instant solution. Capacity building in terms of physical space, qualified professional support and evidence-based programing is needed to make this work. Funding to make all of that possible will come from two primary sources. Over the next 18 years, New Hanover County will receive $18.4 million from the nationwide opioid settlements. Additionally, a $50 million escrow from the sale of New Hanover Regional Medical Center to Novant was dedicated expressly for addressing mental health and substance use disorders in our community. While the opioid settlement funding is finite, the escrow will continue to build interest earnings, helping the county keep a sustained commitment to both mental health and substance use initiatives for many years.????
Ultimately, this will become part of the yearly budget cycle. We will review the efforts we are undertaking, see what is working, expand capacity when needed and keep up with new methods to make sure we are providing the highest level of service possible for our citizens. Our team here at the county is researching the best practices to be successful and building a plan that will serve as the starting point for how we address these issues.
All of this will be in addition to The Healing Place, a 200-bed, peer-led residential drug and alcohol recovery facility that will be available at no cost to anyone seeking addiction treatment. Construction on the facility is nearing an end, with the complex set to open its doors to those seeking help early in the new year.
Mental health and substance use disorders do not see color, gender, financial stature or any other characteristic that we often use to define ourselves. This is an issue that truly impacts us all.
As a county, we are committed to providing the resources needed to improve outcomes for those who need help, while also creating preventative measures that keep individuals and their loved ones safe and healthy. The specifics of the resources and initiatives will take time to finalize, but we are excited to see where these discussions lead and, ultimately, how they can help our community.