Film puts spotlight on Vermont prescription drug problem

ADDISON COUNTY — The screening in Addison County next week of a new documentary about prescription drug addiction in Vermont will shine a light on a growing problem that many would just as soon not see.
“Prescription drug abuse is an epidemic in Vermont — the governor said so,” said Bess O’Brien, who produced the new documentary “The Hungry Heart.” “I want to create a level of consciousness of the issue, to get the community engaged.”
O’Brien is touring the film around the Green Mountain State and will screen it Nov. 15 at the Vergennes Opera House, Nov. 16 at Holley Hall in Bristol, and Nov. 17 at the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society building off Charles Avenue in Middlebury. All screenings begin at 7 p.m.
She said the goal of “The Hungry Heart” tour is to start a statewide conversation about drug addiction.
Kate McGowan, executive director of the United Way of Addison County, said there has been a documented rise in opiate abuse in the area.
“2011 data shows that the number of patients who sought treatment rose from zero in 2000 to over 100 in 2011,” McGowan said. “During this same period the number of people seeking treatment for alcohol and marijuana abuse declined.”
McGowan said that comprehensive data is hard to come by, but there are indirect ways to track the rise in drug abuse.
“The canary in the coal mine is the increase in robberies, burglaries and thefts in the county,” McGowan said. “That’s a visible aspect we can track.”
Much of “The Hungry Heart,” which is set in Franklin County, centers around Dr. Fred Holmes, a pediatrician at Mousetrap Pediatrics in St. Albans. The film features dozens of residents in various stages of addiction, treatment and recovery.
At the center of the film is a debate over the use of Suboxone (a drug that includes the opioid buprenorphine). Dr. Holmes prescribed Suboxone to patients to wean them off opiates such as oxycodone or hydrocodone. In the film, law enforcement officials expressed doubt about the merits of treating a drug addict with another drug.
making THE FILM
O’Brien said the idea for the film came from Holmes, who wanted to tell the story of addiction in his community. Holmes had been treating addiction in patients, many of whom he had seen since they were infants, for seven years before the film was shot.
Production began in the fall of 2011 and wrapped in the spring of 2012. O’Brien cut the 150 hours of raw footage down to a 93-minute final cut, which was finished this year. The crew consisted of O’Brien and a videographer.
“One of the great things, from a filmmaker’s standpoint, was the access Fred gave me to his world,” O’Brien said. “We shot 22 days in Fred’s office.”
In preparation for shooting, O’Brien approached many of Holmes’ patients to see if they would be willing to participate in the film. Most said yes.
“For the most part, everyone was supportive of the project,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien, a Middlebury native, and husband Jay Craven run Kingdom County Productions, based in Barnet. She has produced other documentaries, including “Ask Us Who We Are,” a film about the state’s foster care system.
Several organizations, such as Fletcher Allen Health Care, the Vermont Department of Human Services, Burlington Labs, the Brattleboro Retreat and Burton Snowboards provided funding for the new film, which cost $250,000 to produce.
The Addison County screenings of “The Hungry Heart” will wrap up a six-week tour of the state, on which O’Brien showed the film in 32 towns and cities. She has taken her other documentaries on tour through Vermont, but she said such a tour was especially important for “The Hungry Heart” because of the light it shines on prescription drug use in this state.
In particular, O’Brien said she hopes the film erases some of the stigma surrounding addiction.
“You hear a lot about drug addiction in newspapers and on television, but the focus is on the criminal aspect,” she said. “We don’t always take the time to examine the day-to-day human struggles.”
In the 26 towns the film has screened in so far, O’Brien said the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
“Whether it was a tiny church basement or 1,200 people in Burlington, people have said, ‘We have a problem,’” she said. “Parents are shell shocked by a child’s addiction.”
O’Brien said she believes while the Vermont Department of Health is working hard to combat addiction, there are not enough treatment centers to handle the volume of patients.
“It is unacceptable that we have waiting lists to get into treatment centers,” O’Brien said. “Two weeks may be too late.”
She said there should be three times the number of treatment centers in the state than currently exist.
“If we’re saying it’s an epidemic, we should treat it as such,” O’Brien said.
Moira Cook, the district director of the Addison County office of the Department of Health, said the lack of treatment centers in the area makes recovery from addiction that much more difficult.
“Some people drive all over the state for treatment, and sometimes down to Greenfield, Mass.,” Cook said. “It’s a barrier to treatment, to getting a job if someone has to travel an hour each way every day.”
Cook acknowledged the rise of opiate use in the area, citing a 2011 survey in which 6 percent of Addison County respondents said they had abused prescription drugs.
“It’s certainly a newer trend — roughly in the last 10 years,” Cook said. “We also have high rates of binge drinking and marijuana use.”
Cook praised “The Hungry Heart” and said she screened parts of it for her staff. Cook also invited local health professionals and legislators to attend the screenings next weekend.
Arthur Howard, the president of the board of directors of Turningpoint, a support center in Middlebury for people with addictions, said prescription drug abuse is a big problem in Addison County.
Turningpoint has 11 rehabilitation centers throughout the state. Each is staffed by volunteers like Howard.
Howard hosts a regular Narcotics Anonymous meeting. He would like to see more addicts avail themselves of the services offered to kick their habits.
“If I have eight people at a meeting, that’s a crowd,” Howard said. “Which means that a lot of people who are addicted aren’t going to meetings.”
Howard said the stigma of being a drug addict deters many from seeking help.
“There are other people higher up the ladder in the community that don’t want people to know they are addicts,” Howard said.
Howard said that 700 people pass through Turningpoint’s doors every month.
He believes Suboxone is an effective tool to help addicts kick opiates, and that it should be administered only at treatment centers. His rationale was simple: If addicts have to come to Turningpoint every day for Suboxone instead of filling a prescription on their own, this would cut down on abuse of Suboxone.
O’Brien said she is seeking national distribution for the film, and will submit it to film festivals. The Office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington, D.C., also contacted Kingdom County Productions about screening the film.
She is encouraging parents to come see the film, and to bring their children. Mount Abraham and Vergennes union high schools will also have screenings for students on Nov. 15. At the shows in Vergennes, Bristol and Middlebury admission is $12 for adults, $6 for children and “free for those in recovery or affected by addiction.”
It is especially important for health professionals in the area to see the film, O’Brien said, because no doctors in Addison County currently prescribe Suboxone.
“That’s a big problem,” O’Brien said. “Suboxone isn’t the end all, be all drug, but it is a step. Doctors should listen to Fred and see what he’s doing.”
McGowan encourages residents in need of abuse treatment to call Vermont 211. The toll-free phone line is staffed 24 hours a day and can direct callers to the appropriate department or agency to serve their needs.
McGowan said she planned to see “The Hungry Heart” when it comes to Addison County next week.
“Every member of this community has been affected by substance abuse in some way,” McGowan said. “We have to remember that recovery is not a straight line — often it’s two steps forward, one step back.” 

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