Seminole County Substance Abuse: The Sheriff’s Perspective
That the Seminole County substance abuse problem exists is a fact. That it’s being duly addressed is also a fact — and a promise. So says Seminole County Sheriff Dennis Lemma. In fact, the county’s top cop even went on record with the Orlando Business Journal to prove it.
Of course even a sheriff can’t duly address a problem until it’s duly recognized. And that’s the real reason why Sheriff Lemma chatted with the OBJ’s Richard Bilbao. See, like every other county in these United States, Seminole County has substance abuse issues. And like every other U.S. county, Seminole County’s substance abuse issues are currently high and rising. Why? Well, the pandemic naturally, which effectively reignited the problem. Unfortunately, it was a problem that for awhile seemed to have started burning out.
COVID vs Mental Health and Substance Abuse
And boy did the pandemic reignite the problem. As The Kaiser Family Foundation found (and Bilbao pointed out), the COVID Pandemic has caused economic harm on the scale of the Great Depression. As the economy goes, of course, so goes mental health and substance abuse. And issues with both have followed along accordingly.
“Research from prior economic downturns shows that job loss is associated with increased depression, anxiety, distress and low self-esteem,” read the Foundation’s report. And that, in turn, “may lead to higher rates of substance use disorder and suicide…”
May and has. Big time. Especially when the social protocols are added to the economic mix. In fact, a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report found 40.9% of respondents suffering at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition as a result of the pandemic. Those conditions include anxiety or depressive disorder (30.9%) and trauma- and stressor-related disorder (26.3%), as well as having started or increased substance use (13.3%). Since the CDC’s report dates back to June of 2020, those numbers are quite likely even higher.
Who’s being most affected? Well, KFF found essential workers were 12% more likely than nonessential workers to report symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder (42% vs. 30%, respectively) and more than twice as likely to start or increase substance use (25% vs. 11%). They also reported suicide ideations at nearly triple the rate (22% vs. 8%).
Ugly numbers indeed.
Battling Seminole County Substance Abuse
The U.S. Department of Labor says Florida had the 10th most unemployment claims of all U.S. states for the last week of February. The only states with worse records were Ohio (137,938 claims), California (132,839), New York (57,566), Georgia (26,111), Illinois (32,388), Massachusetts (19,684), Michigan (17,984), Pennsylvania (29,773) and Texas (38,941).
Again, as money woes go, so goes mental health and substance abuse. Call it a mutual turn-for-the-worse. In January the Seminole County substance abuse spike took 11 lives. That’s right. Eleven vibrant lives ripped right from the heart of Florida. Sheriff Lemma says things are dim all across the Sunshine State.
“Most Florida jurisdictions have really experienced a 60 percent or greater overdose increase in 2020,” the sheriff told ABC-affiliate WFTV. “And a 25 to 30% increase in overdose fatalities.”
The sheriff also told the station that though Seminole County deputies will not stop targeting drug dealers, his office had added other strategies to the equation. For instance, the jail has implemented a medication-assisted treatment (MAT) program. While right across the street from the jail, the Sheriff’s Office has teamed with Advent Health, Seminole County EMS/Fire Rescue and the Board of County Commissioners to open a first-of-its-kind Hope and Healing Center.
“Unfortunately, people with opioid issues have been trapped in a cycle of ‘catch, treat, release,'” Sheriff Lemma said in a statement with Advent Health. “This partnership will help us break that cycle.”
Treating Seminole County Substance Abuse
Seminole County’s new recovery center won’t just be for folks who’ve run afoul of the law however; it’ll be for the entire community. Then again, the Sheriff’s Office has long prided itself on community-wide engagement. Lately Sheriff Lemma has also been concerned with substance abuse in the workplace.
“Many Central Florida employees may have adapted to working from home due to the pandemic,” writes OBJ’s Bilbao. “But it hasn’t been easy for all.”
Specifically, he continues, those who’ve been forced to work in isolation. Then there are those who have fallen victim to hour reductions or even job cuts. Both scenarios could result in stressing workers’ emotional states. They may also be opening the door to potential substance abuse and other health issues.
All the more reason for Sheriff Lemma and his Deputies to be concerned.
Seminole County Sheriff Dennis Lemma
Seminole County Sheriff Lemma spoke with Orlando Business Journal on how substance abuse rates have changed since the pandemic, how it’s affected the workplace and what employers can do:
Has there been an increase in local substance abuse during the pandemic?
Yes. Stresses related to job and home loss, social isolation and health risk fears associated with Covid are significant reasons we believe we see a documented rise in drug dependency, including a significant increase in both overdoses and overdose deaths. One of the unintended consequences of the lockdowns is that our neighbors have turned to substances at record numbers, and the outcomes are deadly.
What data can you share about the pandemic’s impact on substance abuse?
We can measure the possible impact the pandemic has had on substance abuse with overdose statistics. In 2019, there were 457 overdoses in Seminole County. Of those, there were 81 reported overdose deaths. In 2020, 740 overdoses were reported countywide, with approximately 105 reported overdose deaths (we still are receiving data from the Medical Examiner’s office). This increase in overdoses and overdose deaths is incredibly alarming, and these trends aren’t slowing down. In the first month of 2021, we already have seen 11 overdose deaths countywide. At this rate, we could far surpass the record number of overdose deaths we experienced last year. This is why addressing the opioid epidemic and those with substance use disorders has been my top priority.
What should business owners look for if they suspect an employee may be showing early signs of substance abuse?
Frequent absences, inconsistent job performance and sudden change in attitude at work are some early signs of substance use disorder. I have faith in our local employers to keep the lines of communication open with employees. When possible, let employees know that many people are struggling and encourage them to seek counseling or other forms of outside assistance. With so many employees still working at home in this Covid-environment, it is important to reach out to your colleagues to see how they are doing. Many of these first signs may be missed without the social interactions in the workplace or the community.
How can the business community help workers and fight against the growth of substance abuse?
The business community should keep in mind that those who suffer from substance use disorder come from various backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses and various histories with drug use. Businesses can implement educational and training programs for both supervisors and employees, and consider adopting a workplace substance abuse policy. Managers and supervisors should be encouraged to take time to talk and listen to what’s on an employee’s mind. It is important that business owners and management ensure employees know where they can get help and won’t be judged for doing so.
Healing Properties applauds Sheriff Lemma for his community-wide concern. We’re especially encouraged by his open-minded and comprehensive approach to battling the opioid epidemic. The Sheriff’s incredibly refreshing mindset proves the most effective Law and Order comes from recognizing its many dimensions and implementing accordingly. You could say Sheriff Lemma takes an almost holistic approach to law enforcement. That is, he looks at the whole problem, and the whole person. And every member of his community is all the better off for it.
Of course not everybody lives in a county helmed by a top cop like Sheriff Lemma. That means not everyone has access to enlightened law enforcement, let alone recovery. That doesn’t mean help isn’t out there however. In fact, help is just about everywhere. All you’ve gotta do is pick up the phone. So if you need help with substance abuse, make the call. Please. It just may be the best call you’ve ever made.