As S.I.’s Opiate Crisis Worsens, One Advocate Says Community is Key

Executive Director of Staten Island Treatment Center Calls on Students to Do Their Part

By Vincent Caputo and Matthew Angell

Photo Credit: Larry Zakharenko

Photo Credit: Larry Zakharenko

Highly potent batches of heroin and other opiates continue to find their way to Staten Island, taking the lives of many each year. Luke J. Nasta, the executive director of Camelot Counseling Center, told an audience at CSI that he believes part of the solution to decrease the rate of accidental overdoses lies in increased involvement from the community.

There have been at least 75 fatal drug-related overdoses this year, according to the Staten Island District Attorney’s office. The number has already eclipsed the 69 fatal overdoses that occurred in 2015.

Nasta, who used to be addicted to heroin in his youth, now operates an inpatient treatment center dealing with drug abuse.

“It’s like playing Russian Roulette,” said Nasta in late October during a seminar in 1P focused on opiate abuse. “One day you’ll roll the cylinder and end up blowing your brains out.”

Nasta encouraged CSI students in a recent lecture to confront individuals in their life who they believe may be addicted to opiates.

“If you don’t take actions on these problems it won’t go away,” said Nasta. “If you have a toothache, let’s say a cavity, and you ignore it, does it go away? No, it only gets worse. It’s considered to be a disease, a brain disease, and if you have an illness and ignore it, it will only get worse.”

Nasta said that the root of the epidemic can be traced back to the companies who used to peddle their pills to doctors, back when synthetic heroin was new to the market.

When the pills were first being used for pain treatment, patients were told to use a 1-10 scale of how bad they felt, which could easily lead to inaccurate dosage.

These medications were extremely addictive and powerful; what may have started off as a fast way to ease their pain, quickly becomes a dependence on the drug, Nasta said.

Nasta also said that a major factor contributing to the growing rate of addictions is the shrinking negative stigma that comes with the use of pills.

Since synthetic heroin is available in some over-the-counter drugs, Nasta explained, people are more open to popping a pill than injecting themselves with a needle. This less intimidating opiate is the main gateway to heroin use due to its cheaper price and more intense high.

The  “little blue pill” is just as dangerous as the needle, Nasta told the audience. However, the most chilling thing Nasta said he has experienced was in a bathroom after a meeting on addiction in Albany.

He said he came across a needle drop box for those who go to do heroin in the bathroom at a rest stop.

Nasta said he was “shocked” to see an establishment accepting addiction as a normal occurrence. Nasta argues that this is a disservice to the government’s part and dangerous to those who desperately need help.

Many doctors say that the first step to recovery is admitting to the problem, but most addicts believe that they won’t lose control of themselves, even long after they have.

Heroin use can start as a social experience, but it often degrades into an isolated practice.

A former addict at the meeting, who only identified himself as Louis, admits this is how it started for him while trying to make new friends. “I wanted to fit in with the bad crowd,” he said. “I was just a scared little kid.”  

One major reason why addicts don’t try to seek help for their sickness is that they are simply scared of the reaction from friends and family.

According to Nasta, some users who’ve been taking opiates for years have family members who never know that they had a problem.

However, doctors say that family members should be sympathetic to their loved ones.

“We shouldn’t make addiction a moral issue,” said Comfort Asanbe, a professor of psychology at CSI. “It is a disease of the brain.”

John Arena, a professor of sociology at CSI agreed, telling The Banner that the answer to the drug epidemic begins with more involvement from the community.

“It’s not just a personal problem, it’s a social problem and the solution has to be social,” said Arena. “People need assistance, but the resources need to be there for drug addiction and the shame people have from it.”

Not everyone is in agreement on how to handle the borough’s drug crisis.

Paul Liotta, a reporter at the Staten Island Advance who has written about the drug epidemic, believes the solution lies with the individual.

“I think people should focus more on personal responsibility,” said Liotta. “It’s not the community’s obligation to get people the help they need.

“If someone finds themselves struggling with addictions, they should seek trained professionals to help them get better.”

Nasta remains firm that with the help of scientific research, governmental aid and simply understanding what causes the problems, addicts can overcome their demons and find an escape from heroin.

“Keeping it a secret gives it power,” he said. “If you put it out on the table, it can be fought.”

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