By Ned McCormack, Communications Director, County of Westchester
Jun. 14, 2017: Joined by leaders in health, mental health, law enforcement, business, and community organizations, County Executive Robert P. Astorino today kicked-off a new program that mobilizes an array of available resources and expertise to combat the growing opioid and heroin epidemic that affects communities large and small throughout Westchester. The county has experienced a 200 percent increase in opioid fatalities from 2010 to 2015.
Project WORTHY--Westchester Opioid Response Teams Helping You--is the latest extension of the county's Safer Communities initiative, whose hallmark is to build comprehensive and practical solutions to difficult problems by integrating expertise and resources from across the county.
Project WORTHY's response teams are made up of health and mental health experts and providers, law enforcement professionals, parents, teachers, coaches, clergy, business executives, and youth. Their role is to provide expertise in their respective fields in response to specific calls for help and to conduct informational forums at schools, churches, temples, mosques, municipal meetings, civic associations, businesses, and other groups.
"Westchester County, like communities all across the country, is facing a lethal enemy that grows deadlier by the day," said Astorino. "Whether you live in a city, town, village, or hamlet, in the northernmost stretches of the county, the Sound Shore, or along the Hudson River, the opioid epidemic affects all of us. The work ahead will be tough because the enemy is strong. But working together, we can and will make a difference. Opioid addiction can be stopped. We will continue to fight, and Project WORTHY can make us more effective."
Leadership for Project WORTHY is provided by Dr. Mark Herceg, commissioner of the Westchester Department of Community Mental Health, Dr. Sherlita Amler, commissioner of the Westchester Department of Health, and George Longworth, commissioner of the Westchester Department of Public Safety--all of whom spoke about their experiences with the epidemic in their given fields. The program operates from four foundational blocks--education, integration, prevention, and action--and marshals the resources necessary for each of those areas.
The County Executive first announced the program in his 2017 State of the County Address in April and formally kicked off the program at the Westchester County Center in White Plains today [June 7], where he was joined by hundreds of stakeholders, Project WORTHY's leadership team, and keynote speaker Dennis Romero, regional administrator with the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services' Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
The kick-off event included an overview of the issue, insight into how each area is attacking the problem, and discussions on how best to bring together working solutions. The County Executive also aired a seven-minute video with testimonials from people whose lives have been devastated or severely impacted by opioids and prescription painkillers.
Barbara, a 47-year-old housepainter from Montrose, shared her story of getting hooked on drugs because of chronic back pain. She discussed how it nearly took her life and how it was only after getting arrested and going through a court diversion program that she was able to get the proper treatment.
"It was the court system that put the thumb down on me so that I could be accountable," she said.
Watch the video here.
Romero, the keynote, spoke of the changing face of addiction and the most common ways that people start using--and eventually get addicted to--opioids, painkillers, and heroin. Usage among women is up 100 percent, he said, and addicts are typically young working white men who are "hiding in plain sight."
The best ways to attack the problem is locally with integrated efforts, he noted, praising Project WORTHY as a model of how best to approach this epidemic.
"The face of addiction is indeed changing in the United States," Romero said. "What was once viewed as an urban problem now stretches across communities large and small, rich and poor; this crisis does not discriminate. What we're also seeing, however, is the importance integration plays in prevention and treatment programs. Westchester County's Project WORTHY understands that it is necessary to bring together expertise across various disciplines. There is no other way to beat this epidemic than by working together."
Police Commissioner Longworth shared law enforcement's efforts to crack down on the crisis, notably the county's participation in joint federal and local task forces to take down organized gangs and drug rings; stepping up investigations into doctors and people purporting to be doctors who knowingly overprescribe opioids; and working with local police to increase arrests of those supplying the drugs.
"This is an issue of significant size and scope for law enforcement," said Longworth. "It is not just an urban issue, nor is it limited to any one age group or socio-economic group. This problem hits home everywhere, whether home is a larger city or a small town, whether it's a working-class community or a wealthy community. No one is immune. What is obvious, though, to law enforcement is that we cannot arrest our way out of this problem. The integration across disciplines that we are speaking about today is critical to our success. It will take all of us--government, health care professionals, mental health professionals, community groups, clergy, and other organizations--to fight this battle together if we are to prevail."
Dr. Amler, Westchester County's Health Commissioner, explained a multi-layered approach that includes training first responders and family members to administer Narcan to overdose victims; providing more prescription medication drop-boxes for old and unneeded medicines; and educating physicians on the need to consider alternatives to prescribing opioids to alleviate the pain of surgery, sports injuries, and more.
"Underlying prevention, integration, and education is action," Amler said. "There is no room on the sidelines in the fight against opiate addiction. That's why we're all here today. We need your help. It isn't enough to save a life. We need the help of our partners to change the lives of the mothers and fathers, sons and daughters with opiate addictions."
Community Mental Health Commissioner Herceg addressed the role that common mental health problems and psychological issues play in addiction.
"The reality is that many people who suffer from drug or alcohol addiction are dealing with other psychological issues," he said. "Depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia are all common mental health problems among people with addictions. If we don't address the entire picture and work to address the underlying cause and ensure that the person is fully treated, along with their family, then we will never fix this in a comprehensive manner. This is why I am grateful for the leadership of our County Executive for bringing us together, to make sure we work as a unit to get it right: For every one of every demographic and age."
During breakout sessions, professionals from education, public safety, corrections, health care community groups, nonprofits, and related service providers discussed challenges they each face and potential solutions to those problems. View the Project WORTHY booklet here.
The Project WORTHY team is available to visit local schools, houses of worship, and community organizations. To learn more, contact 914-995-5220 or email
Pictured here: Dr. Sherlita Amler, commissioner of the Westchester Department of Health, Dennis Romero, regional administrator with Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), County Executive Robert P. Astorino, Barbara from Montrose, Dr. Mark Herceg, commissioner of the Westchester Department of Community Mental Health, and George Longworth, commissioner of the Westchester Department of Public Safety.
Photo courtesy Ned McCormack, Communications Director, County of Westchester