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Columbia County mental health official says patients far exceed treatment center capacity

"I never thought I'd do heroin," Steve Bowman told a panel of staff and lawmakers Tuesday.

Bowman, a recovering addict, was one of a few people who shared his story and experiences navigating addiction treatment during a visit from U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Beaverton, at Columbia Community Mental Health offices Tuesday morning, Jan. 23.

"No matter how hard I tried to convince doctors that I was becoming addicted, it was like, they didn't hear my concern. They just gave me more," Bowman said. "I knew I was becoming addicted and I couldn't convince my doctor I was becoming addicted."

Bowman's story isn't unique.

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Roland Migchielsen, executive director of Columbia Community Mental Health, and U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici discuss opioid addiction with a group of counselors and patients during a recent visit to the mental health facility.The National Institute on Drug Abuse now profiles prescription painkillers as a gateway drug that frequently leads to addiction and heroin use.

In the wake of a rash of overdose deaths in the past decade, the U.S. has declared an opioid epidemic.

Bonamici visited CCMH briefly to talk with staff about what, if anything, can be done to curb the problem in her district, which includes Columbia County.

Roland Migchielsen, executive director of CCMH, said the clinic's inpatient addiction treatment center, Pathways, is perpetually full, with a constant waiting list for available beds. The small-scale facility isn't enough to serve everyone in the county in need of addiction treatment.

"If we opened a second Pathways, it would be full the next day," Migchielsen told Bonamici. "We need to be able to admit somebody immediately."

Migchielsen, along with former addicts, said when someone is in need of recovery, they are told to wait for an available bed at the nearest treatment center, which could be weeks or months away. That leads to relapse and often the loss of hope in addicts in desperate need of treatment.

The availability of housing and resources after someone completes an inpatient program is also key.

"Housing and employment is a huge piece of recovery [success]," Migchielsen said, citing a shortage of affordable housing in the county.

In an effort to reduce unwanted or excess prescription drugs in households, many police stations across the country now offer prescription drug take-back days.

Bonamici applauded that, but noted, "A lot of people aren't comfortable going to the police," for drug disposal, "especially with recent ICE enforcement."

The congresswoman said she'd also like to curb the use of prescription pain killers among teens.

About 20 percent of high school seniors have received a prescription for opioids," Bonamici said.

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