Yampa Valley drug overdoses lead to 474 ER visits in past seven years
As a justice program coordinator, Kevin Kohlbrenner knows he could have easily been in the shoes of his current clients booked into Routt County Jail on drug charges.
“If I wouldn’t have gotten clean, I could see myself in jail needing the resources that my clients need,” said Kohlbrenner, who works out of the Craig office for The Health Partnership. “It’s a miracle that I’m not one of my clients. I’ve been where these people are.”
Growing up in an underserved community in Philadelphia, Kohlbrenner was arrested five times as a teenager and two times as an adult, all related to drug use.
Now Kohlbrenner, 33, is in recovery from drugs, married, a father of a two-year-old daughter and a college graduate with a social work degree. He works with individuals transitioning out of jail and with people in the 14th judicial district Recovery Court to connect them with resources and support.
“They need care. They need love. They need support just like anybody. It’s important to advocate for them,” Kohlbrenner said of the clients.
Whether it is from a jail cell or bed in the emergency room or during another crisis moment, individuals who abuse drugs often have to hit rock bottom before they want help, said Brittney Wilburn, Health Partnership executive director.
“In order for you to step into recovery, you have to be ready for it,” Wilburn said. “There’s no one path to recovery. Every path for every person looks different.”
In the Yampa Valley, statistics show many people have hit rock bottom and need help to escape a dangerous spiral of drug use or abuse.
Throughout the previous seven years from 2016 to 2022, 474 people have overdosed on drugs and ended up in the emergency department in Craig or Steamboat, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. From 2012 to 2022, 80 people have died from drug overdoses in Moffat and Routt counties, including a peak of 13 people last year.
Moffat County ranked among the top three Colorado counties with the highest rate of opioid (prescription or heroin) overdose deaths in 2021, along with Las Animas and Alamosa counties, according to the Colorado State Epidemiological Outcomes Workgroup.
The Moffat County Public Health department named substance use disorder as the top prioritized health issue in the 2024-2029 public health improvement plan completed this summer.
“Addiction is like a symptom of a problem such as poverty, generational trauma, stresses of life, lack of resources and a culture here of ‘pull yourself up by your boot straps’ that makes it hard for people to reach out and ask for help,” Kohlbrenner said. “People use substances to deal with trauma, and that just leads to a cycle of more trauma.”
Multiple experts in the valley emphasize “the opposite of addiction is connection.” Fortunately, for drug users who want help, the Yampa Valley has a broad support network.
Some key resources in Craig and Steamboat Springs include Narcotics Anonymous meetings, Clean and Sober support groups and activities, and outpatient treatment through Front Range Clinic, Northwest Colorado Health and Mind Springs Health. Both in-patient and out-patient substance abuse disorder treatment is available at The Foundry Treatment Center in Routt County that accepts most major health insurance. Travis House in a faith-based sober-living home for men in Steamboat, and Oxford House has a men’s recovery home in Craig. The full list of recovery resources can be found at the website TheHealthPartnership.org.
Some gaps in Yampa Valley resources for people trying to get or stay off drugs include not enough emergency, temporary and affordable housing options to provide stability during recovery, no homeless shelters and no in-patient drug rehabilitation that accepts Medicaid.
Area organizations are filling some other holes in service later this year; for example, Travis House will open a Love Life house for women this fall in Steamboat. Oxford House hopes to open several new homes in Craig. The Foundry team has a tele-health IOP, or intensive out-patient program, but is working to create an in-person IOP, which is a middle ground program between in- and out-patient treatment.
Chris Ray and Nele Cashmore, Health Partnership peer recovery specialists in Routt and Moffat respectively, work with clients through referrals from the emergency departments. They say reducing the stigma of having community conversations about substance abuse and the recovery process, especially with men supporting male friends, could help normalize conversations for people thinking about reaching out for help.
Cashmore said one big step would be if the Yampa Valley community and businesses could get behind supporting clean and sober events, awareness and resources as much as the community supports the party-town culture.
Kohlbrenner said people struggling with addiction can often feel isolated and ostracized, so “for them to have somebody to walk with them through process of transitions back into the community and to provide support and resources can make a huge difference.”
September is “Recovery Month,” and The Health Partnership is hosting a month of connection options such as yoga classes, workouts, bowling and coffee shop meet-ups. A Clean and Sober Fall Festival is planned for 1-3 p.m. Sept. 30 at the Wild Goose Granary in Hayden. More information is available on the CleanandSoberSteamboat or CleanandSoberCraig Facebook pages.
A recovery resource list is available for both Routt and Moffat counties on The Health Partnership website at TheHealthPartnership.org under the Resources tab then “Recovery.”
The SAMHSA National Helpline at 800-662-HELP (4357) is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day treatment referral and information service in English and Spanish for individuals and families facing mental health or substance use disorders.
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