Jake's legacy

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Cooley law professor organizes panel about heroin addiction

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Lauren Rousseau is passionate about helping victims of heroin addiction and their families after suffering a parent's worst nightmare - the death of her "bonus son" Jake following a two-year battle with addiction to heroin and other drugs. Jake had been a family friend since middle school, and Rousseau became his legal guardian following his mother's death when he was in high school. He was just 19 when he died.

So Rousseau, a professor at WMU-Cooley Law School, brings particular insights and understanding to a panel she will moderate on Thursday, March 19, at the Cooley Center lobby, 300 S. Capitol Ave., in Lansing.

"Silence Equals Death: How the Heroin Epidemic is Driving Change in Perception, Treatment, & the Law" will explore the new recovery advocacy movement, and how the heroin epidemic is fueling its growth and effectiveness. The event will feature a screening of the documentary film, "The Anonymous People."

"This film very clearly identifies problems with our current approach to addiction and treatment, and just as clearly identifies solutions," Rousseau says. "We need to create a community that is more conducive to and accepting of recovery. There are many ways to do this, and the film identifies some of them."

The panel comprises the Hon. Jodi Debbrecht Switalski, 51st District Veteran's Treatment Court judge and co-founder of RADEO (Regional Anti-Drug Education & Outreach); Andre Johnson, president and CEO of the Detroit Recovery Project; Erica Clute-Cubbin, business development and contract management specialist for Meridian Health Services and Oakland County regional champion president of ACHC Families Against Narcotics, Southeast Oakland Region; and addiction specialist Dr. Mark Menestrina, former medical director for Brighton Center for Recovery, Southeast Michigan Community Alliance, and Personalized Nursing Lighthouse.

The program, from 6 to 9 p.m., is free and open to the public, and light refreshments will be served. To reserve a seat, email rousseal@cooley.edu.

A similar event at WMU Cooley's Auburn Hills campus on Jan. 30 drew close to 150 people including law students, legal professionals, college students, addiction treatment professionals and advocates, those who have lost children, family and friends to the disease, and recovering addicts.

"Because the event was so important to me personally, I put in a lot of work to make it great. I anticipated that it would go well, and it did," Rousseau says.

What she didn't expect was the powerful reaction of many attendees. The three-hour event ran over by 30 minutes because people were eager to ask questions. One man stood up and said, "You've shared information with us that has inspired us to take action, and now we want to make a difference. Tell us what we can do to move this issue forward." He asked people to stand if they wanted to get involved and three-quarters of attendees stood up.

"Almost everyone stayed to the very end, and then stayed to talk with me, the panelists, and each other," Rousseau says. "People told me that they were extremely grateful to us for organizing the event. Some said they struggled at certain points to hold back tears due to their own experiences with addiction. I did not expect this reaction, and it made me realize how hungry people are for the information we provided."

Rousseau is extremely grateful to WMU Cooley for supporting these events.

"They are a vehicle to bring awareness to more people, including people who might not otherwise have occasion to be educated on the issue. These include law students and faculty, both of whom are positioned to influence policy and legislation. And they bring together people who are important to this conversation, including treatment professionals, legal professionals, persons in recovery, and people otherwise impacted by addiction."

According to Rousseau, the exponential rise in heroin-related deaths over the past several years has received much media attention, not just because of the numbers but also because of the victims many of them young people in their late teens and early 20s.

Grassroots organizations are springing up around the country and hosting public awareness events, rallies, even "die-ins" to protest the increasing number of overdose deaths. "The growing attention to this issue by the media and the public is leading to a changed perception of addiction generally, as well as increasing demands for public policy and legislative changes to recognize addiction as a disease and ensure treatment availability," she says.

According to Rousseau, people must realize that addiction is a disease, not a moral failing.

"The stigma associated with the disease creates a barrier to recovery, and the solution to ending stigma lies in people in recovery and others impacted by this disease speaking up about their experiences."

Rousseau notes the current approach to treatment is largely inadequate and underfunded.

"We know what needs to change, and we need to demand that such change be implemented," she says. "Government can make a difference. We need policy and legislative changes that will improve access to treatment and recovery supports. Our current approach to addiction much of which centers on criminalization and incarceration is more costly to our society, in terms of both dollars and human misery, than treating addiction as the disease it is and providing for proper treatment and care."

Rousseau is outraged that insurance companies are permitted to limit inpatient treatment to 12 days, 10 days, five days.

"This is inadequate to the point that it can do more harm than good," she says. "Treatment of reasonable duration is beyond the financial means of most people. We need to fix this."

Rousseau volunteered at the Brighton Center for Recovery after Jake's death, and now serves on the Board of Home of New Vision, a nonprofit agency with facilities in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Jackson, providing comprehensive treatment and support for those suffering from addiction.

"I feel very privileged to serve on the board it puts me in a position to make a significant difference for people struggling with addiction," Rousseau says. "I have great respect for HNV's CEO Glynis Anderson, for HNV's staff, and for my fellow board members. HNV takes a very individualized approach to its clients, recognizing that addiction and treatment is not 'one-size-fits-all,' and this comports with my own understanding and experience with this disease."

A big part of finding the solution lies in bringing awareness to the larger community, Rousseau notes.

"As growing numbers of people develop an understanding of this disease and its destructive impact, they put pressure on government to make policy and legislative changes to remove barriers to recovery. The tragedy of the heroin epidemic is bringing addiction and its treatment out of the shadows and into the spotlight. People are dying young people and the community is taking notice and demanding action."

"My experience with Jake was by far the most emotionally devastating of my life," she adds. "I loved him like my own son, and it will forever break my heart that I wasn't able to help him find his way to a healthy life. Every young person addicted to heroin is Jake to me, and that person's family is me. By helping them to avoid Jake's fate, or by helping to lessen the pain for them in any way, I'm helping Jake by proxy and making sure that his life and death were not meaningless. I keep Jake alive in my life by doing this work."

"So many people have been impacted by this disease, and want to make a difference but don't know how. I'm far from alone in my passion for this issue, or in the pain I experienced that drives my passion. There is a whole army of us now, and with a little direction and organization, we can effect change that will significantly improve the lives of people battling with addiction and their loved ones. For me, this is Jake's legacy."

Published: Mon, Mar 09, 2015

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