Mental Health Reform Rally Draws Hundreds in Philadelphia

“This is not a Democrat or Republican disease,” Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said. “This disease doesn’t care what side you’re on.”

Morgan Zalot Demonstrator Greta Schwartz, of New Jersey, carries a coffin with names of people who have died of addiction and suicide on it. Schwartz is among hundreds who attended a rally for mental health and addiction reform following a caucus on addiction in Center City Philadelphia during the DNC.

Hundreds of people who gathered in a hot meeting room at a downtown Philadelphia Quaker meetinghouse on Tuesday afternoon came because they had one thing in common: Whether personally or through a loved one, they have faced some kind of battle with addiction.
“There’s no road map for addiction,” said Jim Hood, a co-founder of Facing Addiction, the nonprofit that organized the caucus. Speaking before the event kicked off, Hood became emotional and choked up while sharing the story of his son, who died of an overdose, leaving his father with an eternal drive to keep fighting the battle against addiction.

My oldest boy started drinking at 14, marijuana at 15 and pills at 16. It went on many years,” Hood, who is based in Connecticut, said. “When he had a fatal overdose before he turned 21, it was soul-crushing. I said, ‘Why the hell was it so hard to get trusted help for somebody who’s sick?'”

That question is what much of the discussion was about at the caucus, which Hood and his fellow co-founder, Greg Williams, said was the largest addiction caucus ever to take place during a Democratic National Convention. The event drew about 500 people, who packed shoulder-to-shoulder on the benches in a meeting room at Center City’s Friends Center to hear speakers including former Congressman Patrick Kennedy, Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services Commissioner Arthur Evans, Delaware Gov. Jack Markell and a host of other politicians, advocates and people in long-term recovery.

“The threats to our streets are not in Aleppo or Fallujah,” U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., told the crowd early in the caucus. “The terrorism that could come into peoples lives is this drug epidemic.”

Michael Miller tried taking prescription painkillers when he was younger. Over time, his use grew stronger. Now, he’s addicted to heroin and desperately trying to get his life back on track. NBC10 spent time with Michael to understand how addiction controls his life. (Published Monday, March 21, 2016)

Markey spoke in a line of several politicians from New England, where the Facing Addiction organization is headquartered. As part of the DNC, Facing Addiction is also sponsoring wellness rooms for recovery in the Convention Center all week. Hood and Williams said their group sponsored the same at last week’s Republican National Convention, marking the first time in history that the RNC had wellness rooms for addiction recovery.

Most of the speeches and panels centered on reforms for the criminal justice and health care reforms including establishing strong drug-treatment programs in jails, ending incarceration as a way to handle addiction, overhauling the insurance industry to require coverage for addiction treatment, and full funding of the Comprehensive Addiction Recovery Act, commonly called CARA.

Many speakers stressed that although it was the DNC that brought them to town for the caucus, addiction is a nonpartisan issue.

The Philadelphia area has some of the cheapest and purest heroin in the country and the drug is fueling an epidemic that’s claiming dozens of lives a day. Vince Lattanzio and Morgan Zalot delve into stats on this crisis as part of the NBC10 Exclusive: Generation Addicted. (Published Wednesday, March 30, 2016)

“This is not a Democrat or Republican disease,” Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said. “This disease doesn’t care what side you’re on.”

Watch former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy share the story of his own battle with addiction here:

Rhode Island state Sen. Joshua Miller talked about criminal justice reform in his state, saying that advocates there determined that a high percentage of people dying of overdoses had been incarcerated within 90 days before their deaths. To combat those deaths, Miller said, the state carved out between $1.5 million and $2 million in its most recent budget for medication-assisted treatment in prisons.

Walsh and others echoed the importance of removing addiction from the criminal justice system and instead treating it in the health system.

“If you take the drug or alcohol out of their system, they don’t commit the crime they’re there for,” Walsh said. “We have to catch them the day before they commit the crime. Not the day after.”

Evans, Philadelphia’s DBHIDS commissioner, said access to treatment is a major issue for people facing addiction, stressing that the other side of insurance parity — aside from mandating coverage for treatment — is ensuring that people can access help.

“Part of our advocacy has to be making sure our policies align,” Evans said, adding that 90 percent of people in need of treatment don’t get it.

Several of the speakers during the caucus, including delegates for both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton who participated in a panel, were in recovery themselves, and shared the stories of their own struggles with addiction.

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“Ten years ago, I was homeless on the streets in Norwalk, working as a sex worker and doing anything for my next drink or drug,” Mariel Harrison, a panelist, said. “Before that was me, I thought that was other people.”

Harrison, 30, has been in recovery since 2007. She said she shares her story to break the stigma around addiction and raise awareness that it can happen to anyone.

“If this were Zika, if this were cancer, if this were anything else, it wouldn’t be treated this way,” she said.

Also speaking from personal experience on a panel about humanizing addiction, Patty DiRenzo, of South Jersey, said that what families battling addiction need is more support — both from workplaces and the health care system. DiRenzo’s son, Sal, died of a heroin overdose in Camden in 2010. NBC10 told Sal’s story in-depth in Generation Addicted, a special report on the heroin and opioid epidemic, earlier this year.

“When you have someone in your household struggling with addiction, the whole family struggles,” DiRenzo said. “We need support for families. I never knew what to do with my son when he came out of treatment.”

Al Shaffer, who attended the caucus, knows DiRenzo’s battle all too well — Shaffer’s son battled his own addiction, but made it out, and has been in recovery about two and a half years, Shaffer said.

“It affects everyone,” Shaffer, of Cherry Hill, who is in an advocacy group with DiRenzo, said. “It’s in every corner of society. It has a ripple effect.”

After the caucus ended, many participants and attendees headed a few blocks to Dilworth Park, outside City Hall, for a “Like-Minded” rally to call for reform in mental health and addiction treatment.

Among some 200 to 300 people who gathered for the rally — many donning green shirts with the words “Like-Minded” emblazoned on the front — Greta Schwartz stood out. Schwartz didn’t put on a T-shirt, but instead dragged a life-size coffin, with dozens of names of people lost to addiction and suicide written on it, strapped to her thin body.

Schwartz said she decided to make the coffin and take a trek from Trenton to South Jersey — more than 90 miles — on Memorial Day to raise awareness about the need for reform in the mental-health system. She’s seen up close how bad things can be for those in need.

“I carry markers with me so people can put their loved ones’ names on it,” Schwartz said of the coffin, which followed her like a specter. She estimated that about 120 names have made it onto the coffin since she first began her advocacy in May.

Gary Tennis, Pennsylvania’s secretary of Drug and Alcohol programs, took the podium during the rally, along with U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, D-NJ, Evans and other leaders.

Tennis, who did not speak during the caucus but instead sat in the audience, traveled to Philadelphia from Harrisburg for the events.

“It’s an important day,” Tennis said. “It’s time to start treating addiction like other diseases. We have a lot of strange, inhumane and irrational policies, and with 1,000 people dying a week, it’s time to change that.”

Watch U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross’ address during the rally here:

Learn more about the impact the addiction crisis has on our region in Generation Addicted, NBC10’s in-depth special report on the heroin and opioid epidemic.