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Parents of opiate addicts meet to share support and strategies

The Learn to Cope support group for parents of addicts met last week at the Cecil R. Paul Center for Business at Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy.

Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff

The Learn to Cope support group for parents of addicts met last week at the Cecil R. Paul Center for Business at Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy.

One in a series of occasional articles about opiate abuse and its consequences.

QUINCY — On Tuesdays, about 50 members of Learn To Cope gather in a conference room on the third floor of Eastern Nazarene College’s Old Colony campus. The meetings follow a formula: Facilitators read the group’s mission statement and offer the members drug-testing kits and Narcan, a nasal spray that can reverse a deadly opiate overdose. Then, they ask if anyone is in crisis.

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At the meeting last week, no one responded at first.

Then one woman spoke up. “I was wondering if you could help me,” she said.

She wanted her son to get inpatient treatment, but his private health insurance would not cover it. She thought he would be better off with public health insurance.

Joanne Peterson, the group’s founder, addressed the room. “How many other people have dealt with this, too?”

Two dozen parents raised their hands.

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They shared their experiences with various health insurance providers. They said switching to MassHealth was easier before the Affordable Care Act, because now children can stay on their parents’ plan until they turn 26. They recommended going out of network and out of state, and offered the names of some treatment facilities. As a last resort, they said, the mother could apply for a “Section 35,” a state law provision that allows family members to get a civil commitment and inpatient treatment for up to 90 days for someone with a life-endangering addiction.

This community of parents supporting and advising one another was Peterson’s vision for Learn to Cope when she founded the organization 10 years ago in Randolph.

“I created Learn to Cope out of everything I wanted,” said Peterson, whose son is in recovery for opiate addiction. “I wanted to learn, to know what kinds of treatment options are out there. With education and knowledge comes strength.”

Since 2004, the organization has grown to include 12 chapters across the state and more than 5,000 people participating on the organization’s Web forums. Peterson says she has a page-long waiting list of other communities (and other states) that would like to form a Learn to Cope group. The nonprofit received funding from the Department of Public Health to expand to other communities. It also depends on donations.

“Sadly, it’s a busy organization,” said Peterson. “People act like opiate addiction is this new issue, but it’s not. It’s just more people are dying. I’ve been doing this for 10 years; this is by far the worst I’ve ever seen, these last six months. The Cape is wracked with it.”

Across the state, local law enforcement has reported a spike in heroin use and overdoses, but opiate use has been on the rise for years. According to a 2012 report from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, between 1999 and 2009, the annual number of fatal overdoses in the state nearly doubled, from fewer than 350 to 627. That report estimated that every eight days, someone in the south suburbs dies of an opiate-related overdose.

From November 2013 to February 2014, an estimated 185 people in Massachusetts died from heroin overdoses, and that does not include figures from Boston, Springfield, and Worcester.

For years, the state’s Department of Public Health has been supplying addicts and their families with Narcan, and in response to the recent jump in overdoses, more first responders are being trained and equipped with the life-saving drug. This month, Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey announced that he will host a training session for all first responders in the county, to equip them with certifications and prescriptions to carry Narcan.

In addition to the reaction from local and state government, the state heroin epidemic has also garnered a community of support, one determined to make the conversation about opiate addiction public.

On Sunday the Scituate Clergy Association will host a “Day of Hope.” Clergy from seven churches will focus their sermons on drug addiction, and that evening, they will host a vigil on Lawson Common.

The Rev. Grant Barber, rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, who organized the event, called it “one piece of a larger quilt of community response.”

“Bringing to light things that are challenging is important. Like so many other crises in people’s lives, it can get very isolating if you feel like you’re the only person going through this,” said Barber. “I’ve been here in Scituate nine years, and it’s been a growing trend. We’ve had a series of deaths in the community, and it’s a small enough town that you know someone who’s dealt with this.”

The event will include a resource table, staffed by the Massachusetts Organization for Addiction Recovery, the Scituate FACTS Coalition, and the Norwell chapter of Learn to Cope.

Moving forward, Barber said, he hopes that Scituate can get a teen center that would offer drug addiction prevention for young residents, as well as its own Learn to Cope chapter. “We hold them up as an effective model of support,” he said.

Learn to Cope has three chapters in the south suburbs: in Norwell, Brockton, and Quincy. But demand continues to increase.

Many of the mothers at the recent Tuesday night meeting said the most difficult part of dealing with a child with a drug addiction was overcoming the instinct to help and enable.

A Quincy woman said that is why she started coming to Learn to Cope 11 months ago, after she learned about her daughter’s addiction.

“The best thing you can do is turn them away so they’ll hit rock bottom and want to get treatment. But it’s not easy. What I found here was strength,” she said. “This is for me. This gets me through the sleepless nights and the pain of turning her away.”

Derek Getchell, 27, of Quincy, said he goes to Learn to Cope to give back. He used opiates for four years, but he has been sober for eight months.

“You’re not alone, and that’s the beautiful thing about this program,” he told a new member who had learned her child was using heroin only a few days before. “Get phone numbers from other people who have been through this. This is a welcoming experience.”

Sitting in a suit and tie and facilitating the meeting, Getchell represented hope for many parents in the room.

“I would look in my mother’s eyes and I’d feel guilty as hell. But it’s a powerful drug,” he told them. “It’s true that things are never the same once you’re addicted, but sometimes, you come out of it better.”

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Parent to parent

Learn to Cope was founded in 2004 by Joanne Peterson when her son became addicted to opiates.

The group began as a small support group in Randolph.

There are now 12 chapters, in Brockton, Cambridge, New Bedford, Quincy, Tewksbury, Yarmouth, Lowell, Gloucester, Salem, Worcester, Norwell, and Holyoke.

Each chapter has at least 50 members, and there are more than 5,000 participants on the organization’s online forum.

Every weekly meeting is run by experienced facilitators. The meetings are open to the family and friends of those suffering from addiction.

The nonprofit received funding from the Department of Public Health to expand to other communities. It also depends on donations for materials to operate its 12 chapters, its website, and its crisis phones.

For more information, go to www.learn2cope.org.

SOURCE: Learn to Cope

Cara Bayles can be reached at carabayles@gmail.com.

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