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Substance abuse a more serious issue in Eagle County than many realize

Rosanna Turner
Daily Correspondent
There’s often a connection between substance abuse and mental health; mental health issues can hinder someone’s ability to quit drinking or stay sober.
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Local resources for substance abuse

• Mind Springs Health has a social detoxification center within the Vail Police Department. This serves as a safe place for law enforcement to bring intoxicated individuals, where they are evaluated by Mind Springs Health personnel. Mind Springs Health also assesses individuals for treatment after discharge. For more information on detox call 970-476-0930. For more information on Mind Springs Health’s other substance abuse therapies and treatments, call 970-323-6969 or visit mindspringshealth.org.

• Vail Valley Medical Center has a SBIRT (Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment) program designed to screen patients for substance abuse and tobacco use. Patients who screen positive are referred to the SBIRT coordinator for intervention. For more information on VVMC’s Trauma Services Department, call 970-479-7185.

• Alcoholics Anonymous: AA meetings are offered daily in Avon, Eagle, Edwards, Minturn and Vail. There are also special meetings for Spanish-speakers. For a list of times and locations visit vailalcoholicanonymous.com or call 970-476-0572.

• The Women’s Substance Abuse Recovery Group holds meetings in Eagle. For more detailed information, call 970-445-2700.

For a full list of local resources related to alcoholism, drug addiction and mental health, visit eaglecounty.us/PublicHealth.

Having five or six drinks in one sitting might be someone’s idea of a great party, or it could be a sign of a deeper problem. Stacey Horn, a local licensed clinical social worker who specializes in substance abuse, said alcohol and drug addiction affects more people in the Vail Valley than most would suspect.

“Since I’ve been in practice for seven years here, it’s been a constant,” Horn said. “Some people are very closeted about it. … I think we have a culture in the valley that tolerates a lot of substance abuse, even if it’s not (necessarily) an addiction or a dependence. It’s predominant in the food service and hospitality industry.”

When it comes to alcoholism, there can be a gray area between those who drink socially and those who are drinking to deal with other issues or have become chemically dependent on alcohol.

“Often people seek help when they’ve had consequences,” Horn said. “They’ve gotten a DUI, they’ve gotten into trouble at work, they’ve blacked out and perhaps done something they don’t remember or other people who love them have complained (about their drinking). Sometimes I’ve had people who’ve come and said, ‘I just don’t like the fact that every time I’m stressed out, I have to have two or three glasses of beer or wine.”

A PLACE WHERE PARTYING IS THE NORM

Currently, there are few studies on alcohol and drug use in Eagle County. A 2010 study done by Vail Valley Medical Center found that 28.3 percent of adults 18 and older reported binge drinking in the past 30 days, almost twice the rate in Colorado overall, which is 15.9 percent. Eagle County Public Health Director Jennifer Ludwig said it’s unclear why the binge drinking rate is so much higher here than in the rest of the state.

“We speculate that our county attracts younger individuals and visitors who are coming here on vacation looking to have a good time,” Ludwig said. “We (think) this trickles down to those who live and work here.”

Horn said because so many people move here and leave their friends and family behind, they end up getting “carried away.”

“There’s no one who knows them well enough to say, ‘You’re doing a little too much,’” Horn said. “Because it’s a resort community … that’s probably why tolerance might be higher here for people being excessive (in their alcohol and drug use).”

Both Ludwig and Horn pointed out there’s often a connection between substance abuse and mental health.

“When you start looking at one, you can’t ignore the other,” Ludwig said. “They are very much intertwined.”

It’s not uncommon for mental health issues to hinder someone’s ability to quit drinking or stay sober.

“If people have tried to repeatedly become abstinent and not been successful, particularly women, I find there’s often an underlying mental health issue,” Horn said. “They’re self-medicating, whether it’s depression or trauma; those issues can definitely interfere with someone’s ability to maintain a sober life.”

THE DANGERS OF ‘SOCIAL’ DRUGS

While we know that binge drinking is higher in Eagle County, Ludwig said we have little information on how prevalent illegal drug use is in the area. In February, The Denver Post reported an increase in heroin deaths and abuse in Colorado ski towns across the state. While the story didn’t mention Eagle County specifically, it noted that heroin use has become more mainstream and since 2009 the average age of those trying heroin for the first time has dropped from age 25.5 to age 22.

“It used to be more sporadic in ski towns,” Jim Schrant, a special agent with the DEA who is based in Grand Junction, said in an interview with The Denver Post. “Six or seven years ago, we would have occasional use of heroin in these towns. Now it is regular.”

Horn said in the past four years, she’s seen an increase in the number of people she treats using heroin, and many tell her they use it because it’s cheaper and more easily available than other opiates. Horn said some people’s attitude is they only use heroin “socially.”

“I’ve had a lot of people say that to me, but it doesn’t make sense,” Horn said. “Because they aren’t shooting it, they’re smoking it, they can justify it (by saying), ‘I can control it because I’m only smoking it.’ Although with heroin in particular, it’s a pretty strong physical dependence. The withdrawal is very unpleasant.”

Horn said a heroin death or overdose can seem shocking because some hide their addiction so well.

“There are some very high-functioning people in the valley who are heroin addicts, and no one knows or will ever know,” Horn said.

Horn tends to not use the word “addiction” when talking about marijuana, which was legalized in Colorado this year. In her experience working with patients, she said marijuana use is more akin to alcohol than other drugs, in that some can use it recreationally and socially, while others abuse it.

“I have certainly met people who are deeply dependent upon using (marijuana),” Horn said. “It’s more of an emotional dependence that people develop. … People who are using it for the wrong reasons, more often than not to manage their emotions, ‘I’m happy; I’m sad; It’s Tuesday.’”

SEEKING HELP AND SUPPORT

For those seeking help for substance abuse, Ludwig said Eagle County has many resources but still could be doing more to reach those in need.

“We never have quite enough crisis care,” Ludwig said. “To cover the entire county, we don’t have many bilingual therapists. There’s certainly a stigma of receiving treatment; many people aren’t at that phase yet. … It’s a matter of connecting people to those resources and for the individual to be ready for treatment.”

An uncomfortable reality about substance abuse is that despite the resources available to them, some people still choose to keep drinking or using drugs. Longtime Edwards resident “Sam,” who prefers not to use his real name, is a recovering alcoholic who’s been sober for 18 years. Before moving to the area, Sam went to an outpatient treatment facility in Oregon, but she continued to drink after completing the program.

“I wasn’t ready,” Sam said. “Every alcoholic that wants to get sober, they have to drink the last drop and raise the white flag. (They) have to make that decision to get sober.”

When he moved to the Vail Valley, Sam began attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

“Doing the 12 steps, it gave me a new way to live,” Sam said. “None of us can do this alone. We have to have moral support and listen to other people’s stories. Alcoholism is a disease. We’re not bad people; we’re suffering with a disease. That’s the way I see it.”

Horn echoes the sentiment that support is crucial to overcoming substance abuse.

“The biggest thing is to not be ashamed,” Horn said. “Because they aren’t the only ones experiencing it. They may not be quote unquote ‘as bad’ as other people, but what matters is how they feel about themselves.”


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