Fitchburg Substance Abuse-prevention Chief Looks to Break Cycle
By Amanda Burke
FITCHBURG -- As an attorney, Susan Christensen sometimes represented clients unable to pay for their defense, many of whom struggled with substance abuse, she said.
The same people, she said, passed through the courthouse doors time and time again.
“It just is a never-ending cycle, and until that cycle is broken, unfortunately they just kept going through the system,” she said on Tuesday.
Christensen aims to help break that cycle in her new job as substance abuse prevention coordinator for the city of Fitchburg and communities of the Montachusett Public Health Network.
It’s a newly created, permanent city position currently being funded by a grant from the Massachusetts Opiate Abuse Prevention Collaborative, a program that aims to curb rates of fatal and nonfatal overdoses.
Christensen started last week. She’s no stranger to the job -- from 2013 to 2015 Christensen held a similar role when the Massachusetts Opiate Abuse Prevention Collaborative program was administered through LUK, Inc.
Now employed by the city, among Christensen’s first initiatives is compiling a guide for first responders that lists “any resource someone suffering from an addiction would need.”
The guide is still being compiled, and will contain the names of organizations that provide outpatient and inpatient addiction treatment programs.
From 2006 to 2013, she was program manager of Heywood Hospital’s SBIRT program -- an acronym for screening, brief intervention and referral to services.
Then came her time at LUK, followed by two years in the city’s Community Development Department, where she administered the Community Development Block Grant program.
Now back in the field of addiction prevention, Christensen aims to expand access to the overdose reversal drug naloxone, commonly known by the brand name Narcan.
Many people falsely believe it is easy to tell when someone is battling addiction, she said. But many people who are addicted to drugs fly under the radar, until an overdose.
Having more people -- everyday citizens and employees of local gathering spots -- equipped with Narcan could reduce fatalities, she said.
“People with a substance abuse issue look just like everyone else, and often it is invisible,” she said. “So if someone does overdose, the more people there to assist the better.”
Christensen, whose position falls under the Board of Health’s authority, noted two upcoming events aimed at tackling the accessibility of prescription drugs in the home.
A presentation by representatives from the office of Worcester County District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr. at 11 a.m., Thursday, Nov. 1 at the senior center will focus on the safe storage and disposal of prescription drugs, she said.
And from 9 to 11 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 27, residents are encouraged to bring unused and unwanted prescription drugs to the parking lot of city offices at 166 Boulder Drive for National Prescription Drug Take Back Day.
“Say there’s Percocet or Oxycontin at home from a procedure, they’re right there, they’re easy to get,” she said. “Studies show that many people, especially young people, start with prescription drugs.”
She looks forward to seeing the outcome of a new $860,000 federal grant Early’s office announced last week.
The grant included funding for free inpatient treatment to people addicted to drugs facing criminal charges related to their use of drugs in Fitchburg District Court.
It will also fund the compilation of a detailed map of where overdoses occur in the city, data that will allow her and first responders to target “hotspots,” she said.
“Once we have the data, it will provide us more opportunities to intervene in whatever way we can,” Christensen said.