April 18, 2019

Rotarians join opiate fight

Club members prepare to take up ‘Icelandic Model’ of addiction prevention

By Jason Starr

Observer staff

The Williston-Richmond Rotary Club has turned its focus to helping Vermont overcome opiate addiction, lured by the promise of a substance abuse reduction program that proved successful in 1990s Iceland.

The so-called Icelandic Model has been exported to several European nations and is on trial in West Virginia, a state, like Vermont, in the throes of an opiate addiction problem. South Burlington doctor Catherine Antley has championed the model for Vermont. She spoke about it in July during one of the Rotary Club’s Thursday morning meetings at Williston Federated Church.

The model calls on adults to bind together to create a cohesive, healthy community in which adolescents can come of age — a structure that can overcome the reckless tendencies of youth.

“The peer group of parents should be stronger than the peer group of kids,” Antley explains.

In terms of community-minded adults who are driven to affect change, the membership of the Williston-Richmond Rotary Club is an ideal group. Among the club’s 35 members are town administrators and school principals. Farmer Mike Isham is club president.

“I believe we have the right members of the community in the club to tackle this issue,” Isham said.

In his Sept. 4 report to the Williston Selectboard, Town Manager and Rotarian Rick McGuire said future community forums on implementing the Icelandic Model are on the horizon.

“This initiative has the potential to have a major positive impact on our community,” he wrote.

Isham said some Rotarians have been impacted by the addiction struggles of friends and family members. Last fall, one of his employees at the Isham Family Farm died after overdosing on opiates, he said.

“It blows you away,” Isham said. “It’s surprising the number of people who have become hooked.”

Antley said that the success Iceland had in reducing alcohol abuse among its teenagers in the 1990s proves that a community of committed adults can keep kids away from controlled substances.

Iceland implemented a curfew for children under 16, encouraged parents to work together to create common rules and expectations for their children, prioritized family time over unstructured exploration, incentivized children to participate in extracurricular activities and regularly surveyed teens about drug use.

The result was not only a reduction in teenage substance abuse, but also improved community involvement among parents and a boost in kids’ athletic and artistic achievements.

“Let’s keep in mind, kids don’t want to use drugs. They want to be able to live happy, healthy lives,” Antley said.

“The only way it’s doable is for parents and the community to work together,” she continued. “That’s the challenge. But the rewards are great.”

Since former Gov. Peter Shumlin increased awareness about the issue of opiate addiction with a 2013 State of the State speech dedicated to the problem, state government has boosted its treatment of addicts through its “Hub-and-Spoke” model. Treatment hubs offer an intense response for acute cases, and spokes offer ongoing addiction treatment. There are currently nine hub treatment centers throughout the state.

Antley argues for the state to reconsider its investment in treatment and instead devote more resources to prevention.

“It’s very expensive to do the hub and spoke model,” she said. “Obviously we need to treat people who are in desperate need, but the kids also need investment.”

Antley has presented the Icelandic Model to several Rotary clubs throughout Chittenden County in recent months. She also was interviewed by the League of Women Voters in a public access television production, which is available for viewing at cctv.org.

In that interview, she urged Vermonters to take a hopeful view of their ability to improve the addiction situation.

“People say ‘there’s nothing I can do. This is bigger than me,’ and in a sense it is bigger than one individual person. But it’s not bigger than us,” Antley said. “We don’t have to accept that this is with us forever. We can bend this curve, but it requires that we all work together.”

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