Two men from different perspectives but with a common mission to beat the opioid epidemic met on a recent Friday morning at the Easton Police Department to deal with the crisis.
Former hotel executive Gary Mendell leads Shatterproof, a national nonprofit he founded to end the devastation that addiction causes families.
Before joining the Easton Police Department in 2015, Chief Tim Shaw led the Bureau of Criminal Investigations, Narcotics and Organized Crime and the Youth Bureau as the former assistant chief of the Stamford Police Department.
Drug overdose is now the No. 1 cause of accidental death in America, recently surpassing car crashes. At least three Easton residents overdosed in the past year, although none of their deaths were in Easton. Countless families have been affected by the crisis, most of them quietly, behind closed doors.
Last year, as the prescription painkiller crisis exploded in Connecticut, Shaw reached out to Mendell, a longtime Easton resident.
“Tim called and introduced himself to me months ago, to see how we could work together to stop this epidemic in Connecticut,” Mendell said. “This wouldn’t have happened years ago.”
That’s because in the past, law enforcement focused on crime associated with addiction but left prevention to others.
Mendell, founder and former chief executive officer of HEI Hotels and Resorts and former president of Starwood Lodging Trust, gave up a successful career in the hotel industry after 30 years to found Shatterproof.
Mendell has a personal stake in the venture. In October 2011, his son Brian took his own life because he could no longer cope with the stigma of addiction.
“Brian’s passing was and continues to be excruciatingly painful,” Mendell said. “Perhaps just as tragic is the undeniable reality that it was not just addiction that claimed my son’s life. It was the shame he felt every morning when he opened his eyes that led him to wake up that morning, research suicide notes, light a candle, and take his own life, alone.”
Mendell made a promise to his son to spare others the same tragedy. From his promise emerged a vision to unite millions of Americans within one organization, and empower them to create change.
“My background is in running businesses and getting things done,” Mendell said. “So that’s what I bring to Shatterproof.”
The nonprofit supplies information and support for people with substance use disorders and their families. The website contains a wealth of resources at shatterproof.org.
Shatterproof has a comprehensive plan to tackle the crisis through evidence-based prevention, treatment and recovery strategies. Mendell explained how it works by breaking down the American population into “two buckets.”
The first is the 3 million people who are already addicted in some form to opiates. The second is the 300 million people not addicted and future generations.
For the first bucket of people who are already addicted, Mendell said the answer is evidence-based treatment along with the love and support of their families, naloxone to rescue people who relapse, and elimination of shame and stigma.
“Treatment needs to have research behind it that’s proven to work for those with an opioid addiction, just like for any other chronic disease,” he said.
Medication-assisted treatment with therapy has been proven to work, but is hard to find in many areas of the country.
“How unconscionable is it that two-thirds of the treatment programs in the United States don’t even offer medication-assisted treatment,” he said. “It’s like, how can you even type the words, it sounds so ridiculous. We’re going to get this done.”
In addition to research-based treatment, Mendell said, the plan calls for naloxone to rescue people if they relapse. Connecticut passed a law in 2015 to allow people to purchase naloxone without a prescription.
“As with any chronic condition, such as diabetes or heart disease, people do relapse,” he said. “Naloxone should be everywhere, available to first responders and in every house. It’s inexpensive and can be used to save someone who is having an overdose.”
He acknowledged that the third part of the plan, eliminating shame and stigma, “is very tough, but it can be done.”
Many other have been harmfully burdened by stigma at some point. Cancer and HIV are two examples. Years ago, people used to whisper about “The Big C” in hushed voices. Cancer was taboo, and people who developed the disease were often isolated. But as people with cancer began talking openly, sharing their personal stories and uniting their communities, the stigma began to subside.
Today, cancer awareness events, fund-raisers, and organizations are so commonplace that people might be surprised to learn that the disease was ever considered a shameful secret. And all that awareness has led to funding for important research that is saving lives today.
That’s where Mendell wants to do about the stigma surrounding opioid addiction: Shatter it.
Shaw said there is a level of shame that law enforcement sees and “has to do more to change.” He also gave a law enforcement example as evidence that things can change.
“Five years ago, prior to this opioid epidemic blowing up as it has, no one would have forecast that every police department would have Narcan to respond if someone is overdosing,” Shaw said.
Mendell said, “It’s people like Tim who can change the stigma, doctors can change it, you can change it by how you write this article. It’s hard, but united together as a citizenry, we can change it.”
To prevent the 300 million people who are not addicted from falling into the addiction bucket, Mendell cited three key actions: following federal Centers for Disease Control guidelines, enforcing prescription drug monitoring programs and employing evidence-based community prevention programs.
“Until recently, doctors would write prescriptions for a 30-day supply of opioid painkillers when a smaller number might suffice,” he said. “Ask any of your friends, and they have bottles of pills prescribed for various medical conditions.” Connecticut enacted a state law on July 15, 2015, that changed the number of pills doctors can prescribe for pain. Shatterproof advised on the drafting of the bill, led by Gov. Dannel Malloy, so the number of prescription painkillers doctors can prescribe is limited to seven pills.
The law requires prescribers to consult Connecticut’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program and requires dispensers to upload data within 24 hours.
The law also requires prescribers to take continuing education courses on the proper prescribing of pain medication, and expands access to naloxone. A patient may return and get more pain medicine — or the doctor may prescribe or recommend an alternate treatment — if pain persists.
Mendell wants to see the initial number of pills that can be prescribed slashed to three pills.
Shaw said his mantra is to get the prescription painkillers out of the house. They can be dropped off, no questions asked, at the Easton Police Department and neighboring police departments.
In addition to reducing the number of pills doctors prescribe, and encouraging alternatives to opioid painkillers, Mendell said, all states should implement a prescription drug monitoring program, as Connecticut has done, along with eight other states. Every time doctors dispense something it goes into the state database.
The CDC in 2015 developed a set of guidelines about how and when doctors should prescribe.
“First is try something else before prescribing opiates,” Mendell said. “And it goes through a process before prescribing opiates. You should hardly ever need more than five to seven pills.”
He said a 30-page course for doctors is coming out by June 30. The eight- to 10-hour course can be taken gradually at the doctor’s convenience, an hour a night. He wants to see it become a licensing requirement for doctors employed by Medicaid, state-run programs and private insurers.
In the third area, evidence-based prevention programs are available to help children and families avoid falling into the opioid addiction downhill spiral.
“It’s absolutely not easy to prevent every kid from getting addicted, but it is easy to prevent the majority of kids from becoming addicted,” he said.
The Shatterproof website contains evidence-based prevention programs, centered around strengthening families and building life skills, that schools and communities can adopt.
Shaw said prevention education is an area where law enforcement plays an important part.
He said he used to talk with high school sophomores about addiction, but “based on what’s going on now I started talking with eighth graders.”
Shaw is part of the Easton-Redding Community Coalition, consisting of students, staff, law enforcement, parents, community members, health professionals and clergy, working to address the prescription painkiller epidemic. The coalition meets monthly.
Tragedy led to activism
Mendell moved to Easton when he was 10 and still lives in town. As a youth, he went to Helen Keller Middle School and Joel Barlow High School. He also raised his two sons and three stepchildren here, and they all attended Easton’s schools and graduated from Barlow.
“My son Brian was a loving child, full of smiles and light,” Mendell said. “Like so many children, as he entered his teenage years, Brian tried marijuana. And like far too many, this led to other drugs to which he became addicted. For almost 10 years, Brian battled the disease of addiction and its cycle of shame, isolation and failure. During that same time, my family and I fought to navigate the complex and confusing web of treatment programs and therapies.”
Loving and compassionate through it all, Brian wished others did not have to suffer from this devastating disease. During a visit home in the summer of 2011, as they sat on the back porch one evening, Brian spoke about the stigma and shame he felt:
“Dad, 300 years ago, they burned women on stakes in Salem, Mass., because they thought they were witches. Later they learned they weren’t and stopped. Someday, people will realize that I am not a bad person. That I have a disease and I am trying my hardest.”
This turned out to be his son’s last visit home. Four months later, in the middle of the night on Oct. 20, 2011, Mendell received the phone call that is every parent’s worst dread. Brian was dead.
Mendell vowed to do everything in his power to prevent other families from having to suffer the devastation his family endured.
Stigma and shame make addiction a lonely experience, but it doesn’t have to be that way, Mendell said.
The full name of Mendell’s organization is “Shatterproof, stronger than addiction.”
“And that’s why we do these events where people rappel off a building,” Mendell said. “We do them in Stamford and Hartford every year. We do it all over the country. I’ve done it 40 times.”
Shaw said he did it once, with Bobby Valentine, in Stamford.
“As Gary knows, there still is a stigma,” Shaw said. “Parents don’t want to divulge their child has an addiction. So that’s what makes it difficult for law enforcement to get involved. That’s why you hope the school can get involved. Or a neighbor can get involved.
“If there’s anyone in the community who needs to talk, my door is always open,” he said.