Peer support system for substance abuse to start at Winchester Medical Center

Winchester Medical Center is going to start offering peer recovery services to people who come in with an overdose or say they are struggling with addiction as regional health officials try to combat an opioid epidemic that has killed a record number of people this year.

Under the plan, the Northwestern Community Services Board will hire people who have recovered from a mental illness or substance abuse problem to come to the hospital and talk to people who are seeking help to recover from addiction.

Such “peer recovery specialists” are uniquely equipped to connect with struggling addicts, Nickie Wheeler, chief clinical program manager for the Northwestern Community Services Board, said.

“A peer can come in and has an advantage over the clinical stuff that’s going on, because they’ve been there, they’re a safe place, they have a level of understanding,” Wheeler said. “So it helps support a person’s recovery.”

In addition, the Northwestern Community Services Board is going to launch a “warm line” where people who are struggling with addiction can speak with a peer specialist.

Wheeler said that the Northwestern Community Services Board decided to launch the phone line because of the success of a warm line in Massachusetts.

“It [helped] reduce drug use in their area, it [provided] support to people who might not necessarily come into an agency because of the stigma or are afraid to go to the ER because of police involvement,” Wheeler said.

Both of those programs are part of a grant the Northwestern Community Services Board received through the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services.

At first, the Northwestern Community Services Board is hiring three peer recovery specialists, funded through the grant. Those specialists will receive calls from people throughout the Northern Shenandoah Valley Region, but they will only travel to Winchester Medical Center.

It’s hard for her to say how large she wants to eventually see the program grow, but Wheeler said that she wants to see the program expand, so that the Northwestern Community Services Board will hire more workers and visit more hospitals than just Winchester.

“We’re all about trying to serve as many people in the community (as we can), and we’ll do what we can to make sure that everybody who needs to talk to somebody on the phone or needs to be referred to the [emergency room] will be able to see someone,” Wheeler said. “So I don’t know what the need’s going to be.”

Wheeler said that she is hoping to launch the two programs by the end of the year.

The new program comes as the Northern Shenandoah Valley region faces a record number of opioid-related overdoses. According to the Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition, 38 people in the region have died this year of an overdose.

Last year, 30 people died of an overdose. Before this year, there was never a year when more than 33 people died of an overdose, according to the coalition.