DENVER, Colo. — Mile High Behavioral Healthcare likes to keep its center colorful and bright — words maybe most people wouldn’t associate with addiction treatment, but to Jessica Courtney, the center's chief clinical officer, it’s been how she’s able to reach people to save their lives.
"These are people that got missed as kids. They didn't get the help they needed, they come through our doors and we try to see them as humans," she said.
However, the brightness has been tough to find in what has been an extremely difficult time for those both living with and those who help others get through addiction.
The pervasiveness of fentanyl, paired with the difficulty of getting treatment and the pandemic lead to more than 107,000 overdose deaths last year, a national record, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
"fentanyl is really scary," Courtney said. "Most of our clients do not know that they have used fentanyl. They have an overdose and they don't have Narcan on them because they don't think they, they're not taking an opiate."
"It's everywhere. We've seen it even in marijuana. It's literally everywhere," Courtney added.
"If you're using drugs right now, you don't know what you're getting. We have a completely unregulated supply. And so that's what makes this so dangerous on top of the fact that it's more potent," said Josh Barocas, an infectious disease physician and addiction researcher at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.
Barocas believes there are direct correlations between more fentanyl on the streets and restrictions placed on regulated pills — without a better widespread plan for treatment.
"When you just focus on that supply side, the market takes over and when we don't have enough capacity to reach everybody that has opioid use disorder, people will find the, the easy and cheap thing," he said.
Not only is it stronger, but fentanyl impacts the brain differently than heroin, and requires different treatment. Suboxone is an effective and easy way to treat opioid addiction at home, but it doesn’t work for fentanyl.
Methadone does work to treat fentanyl, but experts like Barocas say there are not enough clinics to support the need.
"In order to get methadone, you have to show up every single day at the same time in the morning, stand in line to get your methadone at the clinic. We don't have a lot of methadone clinics in rural areas. They're usually centrally located in metropolitan areas, and so, unfortunately, many people are left waiting for treatment," he said.
At the national level, treatments like Suboxone are becoming easier to subscribe and money is going toward expanding the addiction workforce, but experts say a lot more needs to be done, including lowering the stigma.
"Because the disease is so stigmatized, treatment is also stigmatized," said Barocas.
"They are people trying to heal from things that most of us can't even begin to imagine," said Courtney.
Courtney believes if people show empathy to those living with addiction, the mindset will help create brighter days.
"They're not just an addict. They do beautiful work here every day. They work harder than anybody else," she said.