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U.S. surgeon general: Kenaitze services a bright spot in opioid epidemic

Jenny Neyman/KDLL

In a small room of a little building on the Kenaitze Indian Tribe campus in Old Town Kenai, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams heard a big message — comprehensive, integrated care is the way to treat those trapped in the opioid epidemic.

Dr. Adams was touring Alaska this week with a particular focus on learning how the opioid epidemic is affecting the state. He visited Kenai on Thursday specifically to tour the tribe’s Dena’ina Wellness Center and Henu’ Community Wellness Court.

“It would be incredibly presumptuous and, in my opinion, incredibly wrong of me to think that we can sit in Washington, D.C. and figure out what folks need in any part of the United States, and especially out in Alaska,” Adams said. “So it’s important to get out and find out what’s working well and what’s not working. And I’ve heard from many folks that the Wellness Center is an example of how to provide many services in an integrated way to individuals, and that’s why we came here.”

The Henu’ Court is a partnership between the tribe and Alaska Court System. All the usual and legal elements are there — judges, attorneys, probation officers, drug tests — but there’s also a holistic approach, focusing on everything from physical to mental health to counseling to supporting participants as they integrate in stages back into the world.

Julie Dravis is the tribe’s director of behavioral health.

“The team that’s assigned to the Henu’ Court includes substance abuse counselors, mental health clinicians who are trained in dual diagnosis disorders, case managers, intake specialists — really, a team of people — pharmacists, primary care providers, wellness providers,” Dravis said. “They all work together to help our participants successfully get through the phases. ... We just find that they may start out in substance treatment but over time we find that there are so many other things that contribute to why they’re in the situation they’re in in their life and we really want to treat all aspects of their wellness.”

Henu’ means hard work in the Dena’ina language. Participating in the Henu’ program can avoid or shorten jail time, but it isn’t an easy alternative. It’s an intensive outpatient program and participants have a lot of rules and requirements they must follow, but they also get a lot of support to be successful.

Jenny Neyman/KDLL
Eli Darien shares his experience in the Henu' Court with U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams on Thursday.

Eli Darien was one of the first participants of the program when it began in 2017. He’s spent a lot of time in the little Henu’ building, next door to the Dena’ina Wellness Center, and he told Adams that this program is the first time he’s stayed clean since he was a teenager.

“I’ve been involved and done drugs for the past 41 years since I was 14 years old. And I got a message from you in every pack of cigarettes I buy. My message to you is that going and putting a drug addict in jail just ain’t working. It didn’t work for me. It was like I was going to jail long enough to rest up for the next party when I got out of there. The Henu’ Court here, I’ve been clean for a year and five months yesterday,” Darien said.

Now, Darien has a job working in the tribe’s educational fishery. He has a driver’s license and a vehicle and he’s working on becoming a substance abuse counselor at the Wellness Center. He says all that wouldn’t be possible without the support of the Henu’ Court.

“With this program, it’s all individualized. The other treatment program I was in was kind of a cookie cutter, everybody was the same,” he said.

Adams has first-hand knowledge of how the cycle of addiction repeats itself. He shared his own story of how his brother suffers from substance abuse.

“You go to jail and, of course, you detox in jail. You come out and not have a job, not have anything to look forward to, go to the same environment where the same friends were, his drug dealer still lives a half mile from our house and no job to go to. And, eventually, you fall back into those old habits and those old routines. And his story is not uncommon,” Adams said.

Stories like his brother’s and Darien’s prompted Adams to travel the country to learn from the local level how the federal government can better combat the opioid epidemic.

Credit Jenny Neyman/KDLL
Adams encourages Mary Kuepper in a set of pushups while Erica Long laughs her support during a tour of the Dena'ina Wellness Center on Thursday.

“We’re trying to figure out what’s working around the country and trying to duplicate it, do more of it, and then give folks the resources to put local twists on what we know works. … We need to create a society where it’s hard to fail instead of one where it’s hard to succeed,” Adams said.

Adams was heading to Kotzebue after Kenai. He also visited Anchorage, met with the Governor’s Opioid Cabinet and attended a town hall meeting on the opioid crisis.

Jenny Neyman has been the general manager of KDLL since 2017. Before that she was a reporter and the Morning Edition host at KDLL.
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