Substance abuse widespread across region — so is support

Steamboat Springs resident Ryan MacFarlane, who works in construction, is happy to help promote the supportive community of the local Clean and Sober Steamboat groups that have helped him, too.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

His drug and alcohol abuse, which started when he was a teenager, ruined two marriages for Steamboat Springs resident Ryan MacFarlane.

“Life got really hard, and it fell apart, a lot due to drugs and alcohol,” MacFarlane said.

When he decided to get clean and sober, he asked his second wife to join him in the efforts. She said, “No.”

MacFarlane moved to Routt County more than four years ago and found the support he needed to fight his substance abuse disorder. After participating in and finding fellowship through a 12-step program, he has been clean and sober for more than two years. The 47-year-old now works in construction, exercises often at the gym, attends psychotherapy and eats healthy.

He is surrounded by the support he needs and now helps organize activities for Clean and Sober Steamboat groups, such as full moon hikes, social barbecues, bowling nights and a Community Cinema event Nov. 14.

“I feel really fortunate that, in this town, there is just so much help for people who want it, and getting the word out is really beneficial and helpful for everybody,” MacFarlane said. “There is a huge community and a lot of resources here for people who are dealing with addiction of any kind.”

Part of that help across northwest Colorado comes thanks to two federally funded collaborations, the Rural Alliance Addressing Substance Use Disorder-Colorado, or RAS-Col, and Rural Response to the Opioid Epidemic Northwest Coalition, or RROE. Together, RAS-Col and RROE have $1.6 million in funding and cover Routt, Moffat, Rio Blanco, Grand and Jackson counties with efforts that kicked off in September 2019.

“The northwest corner of Colorado has a myriad of well-developed and cooperative initiatives around substance use, centered around two larger opioid response grants,” said Paula Belcher, population health management director at Memorial Regional Health in Craig, whose team manages the two grants.

Collaborative work reduces non-fatal overdoses

The collaboration of the RAS-Col agencies reported a significant drop in non-fatal substance abuse overdoses in Routt, Moffat, Rio Blanco and Jackson counties combined during the first half of 2021 compared with the second half of 2020. Those non-fatal overdoes dropped from 48 to 12. —Paula Belcher, population health management director at Memorial Regional Health

The combined efforts include 24 partner agencies, ranging from health clinics to nonprofits to sheriff’s offices. Through the grant-funded collaborations, the agencies are working across the five counties to combat, educate about and reduce prescription and nonprescription drug misuse and abuse that remains a major public health issue.

According to the Colorado Health Institute, 1,477 Coloradans died of drug overdoses in 2020, the most overdose deaths ever recorded in the state. That represents a 38% jump from 2019.

Belcher said RAS-Col partners focus on education, prevention, treatment and recovery. RROE partners, which also includes Grand County, focus on reduction of recidivism due to addiction, life reintegration services and year-round drug take-back programs.

The tagline shown on the RAS-COL website illustrates the collaborative community approach: “It’s not about willpower. It’s about ‘we’ power.”

“We want people to feel hopeful and supported. If they want help, we will do our absolute best as a community to get them resources,” Belcher said. “There are a lot of people who need help, and we don’t want to give up on people.”

Although Belcher said the pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic increased drug and alcohol use and overdoses, the good news is more people are also connecting to the substance abuse resources across the region. She said a top accomplishment in the past two years is adding more peer support specialists, licensed professional counselors and licensed addiction counselors at regional agencies.

Other positives include providing more contracted ride services to transport people to sober events and important appointments, reducing the stigma of people going into recovery via a variety of social media and other outreach measures, creating a pilot program in Moffat County for an Overdose Fatality Review team and distributing 500 harm reduction kits to regional agencies.

Steamboat Springs resident and educator Lindsey Simbeye, external relations strategist for the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention, said substance abuse assistance in northwest Colorado needs to be widespread because the problem is widespread.

“In order to effectively address it, we must have a collaborative and multifaceted approach,” Simbeye said. “That is why it is so imperative to have multiple organizations and industry sectors working together toward a solution.”

MacFarlane worries about young adults whose lives revolve around being social and who believe they need to drink or do drugs to have a social life.

“When they learn they can be social in a sober environment, they are more motivated to get sober and stay sober,” MacFarlane said.

MacFarlane believes welcoming, close-knit rural areas may be more helpful to those struggling with substance abuse than larger metro areas.

“I’ve always been kind of searching for where I belong, and I finally found it in recovery,” MacFarlane noted. “It has just been a real blessing for me to learn that helping other people is truly the key to being happy with my life and with who I am.”

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Steamboat and Routt County make the Steamboat Pilot & Today’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.