Chase Holleman had been pursuing the man for weeks with phone calls and texts.
“We’re just here to talk and help however we can,” he said.
“Dave” (a pseudonym) needed help. Just a few weeks earlier, in the spring of 2018, he had overdosed on opioids. Paramedics had saved Dave’s life with an emergency injection of the drug naloxone and referred him to Holleman, a case manager for GCSTOP – the Guilford County Solution To The Opioid Problem.
Holleman finally convinced Dave to meet, so he could give him naloxone. Some people who use opioids are destined to overdose multiple times; having naloxone at hand could save Dave’s or someone else’s life.
“He got into the passenger seat of my truck and couldn’t talk – was just covered with shame,” Holleman says. “He looked on the verge of tears and panic the whole time.”
It was a first step, at least. But Holleman hoped his intervention might eventually provide more benefit than naloxone.
Arming people who use opioids with the overdose-reversal drug naloxone, which they can use to help others or have a companion use on them, is part of a nontraditional approach to treating drug misuse called harm reduction.
Rather than requesting someone immediately abstain from all drug use, as many treatment programs do, the idea is to chip away at dangers that go along with illegal drug use: deaths from overdoses, infections from dirty needles, risky sex, and more.
Though still outside the mainstream in the United States, harm reduction meets people who use drugs where they are. It helps them take positive steps, even if they’re small steps and even if they don’t immediately stop using or enter treatment.
“You’re trying to get them to make a positive change, any positive change,” says Dr. Melissa Floyd-Pickard, chair of UNC Greensboro’s Department of Social Work. She and Professor Jay Poole oversee the University’s work on GCSTOP.
Some people, Floyd-Pickard notes, won’t change. But some will, and sometimes even a small positive change, such as taking clean syringes, can lead to further changes and even entering treatment.
GCSTOP was launched by Jim Albright, director of Guilford County Emergency Services, in conjunction with UNCG’s Center for Housing and Community Studies. As the program grew, it moved to the Department of Social Work, where it could expand its reach by tapping into the department’s expertise and plugging student interns into the program.
The program’s approach is rooted in a core principle of social work – meeting people where they are.
“Meeting a person where they are involves understanding their situation and respecting their perspective on their situation,” says Guillermo Tremols, GCSTOP’s Syringe Exchange Program coordinator. “It involves active listening and authentic engagement. It is not about trying to execute changes that we think they need. It’s about finding out what changes they want to make, and assisting them in achieving those goals.”
In this “judgment-free” zone, GCSTOP supplies people who use drugs with naloxone, clean needles, and safe injection supplies and educates them about handling opioids more safely. GCSTOP recognizes that some aren’t ready to enter treatment. But putting brakes on fatal opioid overdoses, which have skyrocketed in recent years, is a first step.
Holleman has big hopes for GCSTOP.
“My dream is to meet someone after they’ve overdosed,” Holleman says. “See them find some sort of recovery – go back to school, learn how to be a helper – and work for GCSTOP.”
That hasn’t happened yet, but it could.
After Holleman finally got the High Point man, Dave, naloxone, the two started talking more often.
“Eventually he’s like, ‘I’m ready to do something different,’” Holleman says.
He got the man into a methadone clinic to start weaning himself off opioids. And then Dave told Holleman he wanted to help others struggling with addiction.
He asked for clean needles and safe injection supplies and offered to distribute them at certain motels where he knew people sometimes used drugs. And then Dave went further.
“He said, ‘I want to go back to school and be a drug counselor,’” Holleman says. “And then he started back at school.”
This post originally appeared in UNCG Research Magazine as part of a larger story on UNCG’s response to the opioid epidemic. To read more and to view additional images, visit the magazine website.
Story by Mark Toscak
Photography by Martin W. Kane, University Communications