BURRILLVILLE – For Monica Blanchette, it’s a fascination with – and respect for – the developing young brain that motivates her mission to educate youth about the dangers of substance abuse.
For Michelle Harter, it’s her own experience in overcoming addiction that makes reaching out to those who need help a part of her calling.
Together, the women are working to address the problem of substance abuse in Burrillville, attacking the small town’s version of a national epidemic from two different angles.
“One thing we want to accomplish is to help the residents of Burrillville to lead a better life,” Harter said during a presentation to the Town Council on the program earlier this month. “If the residents are leading a better life then certainly, we’re going to have a better town.”
Both Harter and Blanchette were hired by the town in January, and they’ve spent the past five months working both to stop young residents from becoming addicts and to lead adults in their recovery.
They say that in the northwest corner of Rhode Island, there’s a lot of work to be done.
“We’re pretty busy drug ladies,” said Harter. “There are a lot of addiction issues in Burrillville. It’s probably more than I ever anticipated so I’m a little bit shocked by what I’m finding.”
Harter noted that since 2014, 41 people in Burrillville have been rescued or have died from accidental overdoses.
“At one point Rhode Island, specifically due to the overdose deaths in Burrillville, was number three per capita in the country,” she said. “That’s crazy. It’s almost hard to believe.”
Harter – who runs the town’s new intervention program – has had some form of contact with 38 different people struggling with addiction issues since she started in January. Half, she says, have been related to alcohol use, and she notes that part of the problem is the local culture.
“It’s always been ok to drink. It’s just the natural culture in Burrillville,” she said. “The problem is it’s getting into our children. It’s getting younger and younger and younger. Kids are drinking at 10 and 9 years old.”
That’s where Blanchette, who recently bought a home in town, comes in. Burrillville’s new substance abuse prevention coordinator comes with a background in mental health counseling, and worked at Woonsocket High School as the student assistance counselor.
“For me the prevention side of this is very important,” Blanchette said. “I want to see my daughter grow up in a positive environment. I want to make sure that this is a great place for her to grow up and live in.”
She says that educating both teenagers and parents about how substances – including alcohol – can affect brain development is an important piece of the puzzle.
“Nobody sees it as a big issue. Parents say, ‘as long as you’re here and you’re drinking, at least you’re safe and you’re with me,'” Blanchette said, noting that the problem is that the brain of a teenager is still developing. “It’s just as fragile as that of my toddler.”
Blanchette noted that alcohol and other drugs affect the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that’s not fully developed in teenagers, where all of the higher executive functioning takes place.
“If that doesn’t happen when it’s supposed to happen, then you have adults who end up having arrested development,” she said. “You have that adult wandering around acting like a teenager. It’s because they stunted their growth. Those connections were never made.”
The human brain, she notes, is not fully developed until the age of 25.
“I love what I do because I love the adolescent brain. It’s just fascinating to me what occurs in adolescence,” Blanchette said. “I want to make sure our youth live up to their full potential.”
A major piece of the current crisis, the two note, is the influx of fentanyl and carfentanil in drugs.
“Even small amounts can cause immediate death,” Harter said.
In August, a 23-year-old man from Burrillville died in East Providence after taking what he thought was an oxycontin, which turned out to be fentanyl. His brother, Mitch Weintraub, has since become something of an advocate, speaking out against substance abuse.
Through videos taken up until a week before his brother’s death, Weintraub recently shared with local students the effect drug use had on his late sibling.
“He’s got quite a story,” said Harter. “It was so powerful.”
In hopes to help localize the issue and make it real for families, the pair has asked Weintraub to speak at on upcoming town forum on opioids.
“We want it to hit home because he was from Burrillville,” said Blanchette. “Burrillville has a bigger problem than most might imagine.”
On Thursday, May 24, Weintraub will be among several speakers at an event at the Assembly Theatre.
Councilor John Anthony Scott noted that he has personal experience with the issue.
“I was drinking from 12 to 21. We used to chase women and have fires in the back woods,” said Scott, noting that too many of the friends he once drank with have since died.
“None of these kids that I know that are dead and gone now – they didn’t have this,” he said of the program. “This is what we really need.”
Harter noted that a large part of her job is to bridge the gap between community and law enforcement, and so people know that they can go to the Burrillville Police Department to seek help, or turn in drugs without repercussions.
“A lot of people don’t understand what addiction is,” she said. “It’s complex, it’s chronic and it affects the function of the brain and the body.”
Fighting it, she noted, is a “ferocious battle.”
Councilor Raymond Trinque said that he knows drug use and addiction is “a serious business.”
“I think what we’ve accomplished so far with this program far outreaches what we spent,” Trinque said. “We’re saving people and I’m very proud of what you’re doing.”
Harter and Blanchette can be reached via the Burrillville Prevention Action Coalition Facebook page, or by calling them at the Burrillville Police Department 401-710-9054.