CHRT’s Matt Hill in opioid overdose prevention article

April 18, 2023 | Concentrate, In The Media

Between 2020 and 2021, the U.S. experienced a 28 percent increase in opioid overdose deaths. In Washtenaw County, opioid overdose deaths increased by 26% in the same timeframe. 

A Concentrate article by Estelle Slootmaker titled “How can Washtenaw County turn around a startling rise in opioid overdose deaths?” highlights organizations in the county — like Washtenaw Recovery Advocacy Project, Home of New Vision, and the Washtenaw Health Initiative’s Opioid Project — working to decrease substance use and overdoses. The article interviews Matthew Hill, CHRT program manager who helps facilitate the Washtenaw Health Initative’s Opioid Project, about overdose prevention in the community.

While the traditional approach to substance use treatment follows a “come get help when you’re ready to stop using” ideology, Hill explains, a harm reduction model is more effective. 

With the harm reduction model, treatment is achieved by developing relationships with people currently using, meeting them where they’re at, and working with them until they are ready to overcome their addiction. Part of this approach includes efforts to increase free naloxone distribution in Washtenaw County. Naloxone, more commonly known by its brand name Narcan, is a medicine that can reverse an opioid overdose.

“We’ve had a dramatic expansion of access to naloxone,” Hill says. “That switch to the harm reduction model has been huge in Washtenaw County. Unified [an Ypsilanti-based harm reduction organization] is doing great work with their syringe service exchange program, naloxone distribution, and getting people connected to health resources when they have other health events related to substance use.”

Hill says that while legislative progress is being made, there are many challenges to overcome in preventing opioid overdoses. One discrepancy Hill notes is racial disparities: 19 percent of Washtenaw County’s opioid overdoses were among Black residents, despite them constituting only 12 percent of the county’s population. Additionally, Hill emphasizes the importance of education surrounding substance use.

“The ‘just say no’ philosophy is really harmful. That didn’t work. I myself came from the [Drug Abuse Resistance Education] DARE era. Being a person in recovery, I can tell you, that didn’t work for me,” he says. “We know that young people are going to experiment. If they’re going to experiment with drugs, they should know to do that with a group of people. They should know to have naloxone on hand just in case, even if they’re not ingesting opioids. Having some practical knowledge and practical education can really reduce the effects of accidental overdose.”

Naloxone is currently available in free vending machines at the Washtenaw County Health Department, Ann Arbor District Library, and Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office Reentry Center.