Prescription Drug Addiction Among Seniors in Las Vegas

As a former professional football player and ex-Las Vegas casino executive, 35-year-old Jim thought he was a big shot and that nothing could happen to him. That is, until he hit rock bottom with addictions to alcohol and drugs. Last month he checked himself in to Fountain Ridge, a facility that for the past five months has treated people who are fortunate enough to have health insurance or other financial means and want to break free of the clutches of substance abuse before becoming police statistics. “I didn’t know when the party was over,” said Jim, who started drinking and doing drugs while in high school in Las Vegas. Despite education, public warnings and arrests of hundreds of drug users each year, substance abuse remains a major problem in Nevada, authorities say. The Nevada Commission on Substance Abuse Education, Prevention, Enforcement and Treatment estimates that substance abuse costs the state $1 billion a year, including health-care costs, criminal justice proceedings, education and loss of productivity in the workplace. Drug possession arrests have remained consistent over the last few years in local communities. In North Las Vegas, possession arrests rose from 529 in 2000 to 673 last year. In Henderson the numbers fell from 643 in 2000 to 528 last year. Metro Police made 423 possession arrests in 2002. Statistics prior to 2002 do not differentiate between possession and trafficking arrests, a Metro spokesman said. The National Survey of Household Drug Use rated Nevada No. 1 in the nation for illicit drug use other than marijuana in 1999. Last year that organization gave the state the No. 1 ranking for drug dependency. “Thirteen percent of Nevada’s population is in need of substance abuse services,” said Lisa Menegatos, spokeswoman for WestCare, quoting a statistic from the Bureau of Alcohol and Drug Abuse. “It is an awful problem.” WestCare, one of Southern Nevada’s largest substance abuse treatment centers that is federally and state-funded, is encouraging people who have drug problems to seek help, especially in September, which has been designated as National Alcohol and Drug Addiction Recovery Month. In recognition of recovery month, WestCare has scheduled a town hall meeting on substance abuse for Sept. 15 at the Moyer Student Union Building at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Getting people to admit they have a drug problem and to attend meetings or drug centers like Fountain Ridge or WestCare is no easy task, experts said. Jim, the recovering addict, didn’t accept his problem when it hastened an end to his gridiron career in the early 1990s, nor did he get the message while he worked in the casino industry, where his substance abuse escalated amid great stress and easy access to free drinks. He estimates that over the years he spent at least $17,000 on his drug habit. He wouldn’t divulge his drugs of choice. He has since quit his casino job and pays for his treatment from his savings. He said his bosses tried to help him and tried to make him aware of his problem. His co-workers recommended Fountain Ridge, a residential drug treatment facility near Cheyenne Avenue and Buffalo Drive. Frank Szabo poses at the Fountain Ridge treatment facility. After having worked nine years at a local drug treatment center, Szabo opened Fountain Ridge, a private residential drug treatment facility Frank Szabo, after nine years as an employee of a local drug treatment center, opened Fountain Ridge in March. A recovering addict for the past 16 years, Szabo, the facility’s clinical director, said he is committed to showing patients such as Jim that they can recover from addiction. “Once you go through it, you get the feeling it does work,” Szabo said. Szabo, who has lived in Las Vegas since 1978, said Las Vegas is not a place for addicts. He says addicts have to stay away from the Strip and the lifestyle it promotes because they can quickly succumb to the temptations of gambling, alcohol and drugs. “It’s a pretty fertile ground for you to hit bottom quickly,” Szabo said, noting Fountain Ridge caters to the middle and upper classes who go there voluntarily. “It’s been a really neglected population,” he said. “Addiction runs through every level, but it’s hard for successful people to realize they have a problem. We recognize the need.” The 23-bed, 12-step, 30-day program is licensed by the city of Las Vegas as a “withdrawal management facility.” The facility has treated 53 patients. Forty percent were from Southern Nevada. The rest are from throughout the nation, from Los Angeles to Florida, Szabo said. Szabo said at least 60 percent of his patients have had success with the program. The rehabilitation center accepts insurance and self-pay, but re-directs those who are uninsured to places where they can find help, including WestCare and Monte Vista — facilities that also help court-ordered drug patients. “WestCare saves lives,” said Menegatos, whose brother died of a heroin addiction. “I’ve seen it with people at our facilities who have become clean. They become happy and then want to help others.” WestCare has several facilities, including the 50-bed Community Triage Center that opened this year at 930 N. 4th St. It is funded by Clark County, the city of Las Vegas and other entities. They put money into the operation because they figure it should ease the overcrowding of University Medical Center’s emergency room. Having worked at various treatment facilities throughout Las Vegas for 24 years, Dr. Mel Pohl, Fountain Ridge’s physician who helped develop the program, said Fountain Ridge’s program is different than many others because it offers a realistic approach to treatment and after treatment. “We help them anticipate what they’re going to face,” Pohl said. Jim says he was “welcomed with open arms” at Fountain Ridge. “I’m learning everyday to cope with my addiction,” he said. Two weeks into the program, Jim was busy during the day, attending group meetings and talking to his sponsor. After he leaves the facility, he plans to start working at his father’s insurance firm. He said, he hopes his effort will encourage other addicts to seek treatment. “If I can do this everybody can,” he said. By Afsha Bawany and Ed Koch

photo credit: Thomas Hawk via photopin cc

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