New York, NY—Outreach has been providing essential substance abuse and mental health treatment services for nearly 40 years, starting out first in Queens and then expanding to Brooklyn and Long Island. Despite the pandemic, its staff has not skipped a beat, even though they’ve had their own concerns with Covid-19. According to Outreach’s CEO, Ms. Debbie Pantin, while essential workers such as doctors and nurses are heroes, for sure, the addiction services workforce are equally heroes.

Outreach has had an interesting history. When it first started in Queens, it provided adults with essential services, but then the non-profit’s founder, Ms. Kathleen Riddle, who retired from the organization in 2018, saw the need to provide substance abuse and residential services to teens ages 12-17. 

“So, she [Ms. Riddle] went about establishing residential programs for teenagers that originated in Queens and since that time the organization has expanded the residential programs to four—two for adolescents and two for adults,” said Ms. Pantin.

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According to Outreach’s website, the residential teens program helps adolescents vis-à-vis positive peer interactions and an organized work structure, with vocational/life skills preparation and reflective introspection.

In addition to the four residential programs, the non-profit operates seven outpatient programs to provide services in both Nassau and Suffolk counties on Long Island, as well as Brooklyn and Queens.

In an interview, Ms. Pantin talked about the meaning of alcohol and drug treatment for individuals, families and communities.

She noted that when an individual is impacted by the illness, whether mental health or substance abuse, it also affects an entire family and an entire community.

“People are using because they’re masking something, they’re having difficulty dealing with something,” said Pantin.

“So, it’s really helping them to address those issues as well as also address the things that create triggers for them [so that] they develop alternate coping skills.”

When someone is battling the illness, noted Pantin, it means that they’re not able to realize their educational or career goals. She said that many of the clients that the non-profit treats have not completed their General Educational Development tests, so the treatment program aids them in getting back on track.

But when a client is being treated for either behavioral or psychological symptoms, it’s also true that another piece they have to work on is physical.

Many clients who seek treatment with Outreach can’t tell the staff the last time they saw their primary doctor. Instead, they rely on the emergency room, according to Pantin.

“For a lot of these folks, by the time they get to us, they just have a host of issues that they are dealing with in addition to the addiction itself,” Pantin said.

These are just some challenges that the clients face, and this is before the pandemic struck. The additional challenge now is the isolation. The whole point of addiction treatment is community—it’s about people communing together to really identify and support one another. But now a lot of those services are not available in-person; instead, the client has to rely on a phone or a computer for telehealth appointments. But even this is proving challenging for Outreach’s staff because a client may own a phone with limited data plans.

That’s why Pantin believes in the importance of treatment access, especially during the pandemic where local and federal government data show that overdoses have increased.

“It tells us that access to treatment, the ability to continue to engage in treatment, is extremely key for our population, and not just the population that we serve, but the general American population that’s struggling with the opioid pandemic,” Pantin said.

Thanks to the herculean efforts of Outreach’s staff, that access to treatment has been available uninterrupted because the staff were deemed essential workers. Pantin noted that when the pandemic struck, the staff never stopped working and the buildings remained opened.

“It makes me so proud as an administrator to see what the staff did; they never missed a beat. In many regards, I think they are the unsung heroes,” said Pantin.

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