FRIDAY FOCUS: ‘Devastating’ Drug Addiction and Overdose Crisis Grips Wyoming (Part 2)

Recover Wyoming follows unique formula to provide support, harm reduction in rural areas

By Ernest Beck

Special to the Wyoming Truth

Lana Mahoney is the executive director of Recover Wyoming, a Cheyenne-based nonprofit that helps individuals find the way out of what she calls “the chaos of substance use.” (Courtesy photo from Lana Mahoney) 

The road to recovery for anyone struggling with substance use disorder can be long and difficult. Deciding to enter treatment itself is a huge hurdle, and invariably, the relapses and obstacles along the way can make it appear that sobriety is unreachable. While strategies for drug treatment and recovery support services continue to evolve, there are already programs in place in Wyoming to help people reach this goal.

Lana Mahoney, 40, knows this firsthand. She started using methamphetamines in college, then got clean, and has been in recovery since 2011. She eventually became a recovery coach and certified peer specialist dedicated to helping others on this journey. Today, Mahoney is executive director of Recover Wyoming, a Cheyenne-based nonprofit that helps individuals find the way “out of the chaos of substance use,” as she describes it.

In part two of the Wyoming Truth’s Friday Focus series on the drug crisis, Mahoney discussed drug treatment options in Wyoming, changing attitudes and perceptions about recovery and why she is optimistic about the future—even at a time when overdose fatalities remain high. What follows are excerpts from the conversation.

Tell us more about the work of Recover Wyoming.

Mahoney: We are a federally designated Recovery Community Organization—one of more than 175 in the country and the only such facility in Wyoming. Our name says it all: helping people get into recovery. We don’t provide treatment or have clinicians on hand. But we are a safe place for information, education and resources. Our main principle is that we honor all pathways to recovery.  

What happens at the center on a daily basis?

Mahoney: Anyone can come here and hang out and experience being sober for a short time. It’s a warm and welcoming environment—like a living room where people can connect and engage with peer-based support staff that has been through a similar experience. Once they come through the door, we talk about

everything: detox, drug treatment or how to get them health care or mental health support or housing, which are often also part of their struggle.

What services can you provide for someone who is not in Cheyenne?

Mahoney: We have an extensive statewide telephone recovery support program staffed by volunteers who are certified peer specialists. We get referrals and self-referrals, and also help substance users who have been recently released from prisons and jails and are particularly at risk this time. We do recovery check-ins. Phone contact is really important in rural areas, where this is little or no recovery support, and [people seeking recovery] might have to travel up to an hour to attend a meeting. This way they can just pick a time and we will be there.

Once controversial, harm reduction strategies such as safe syringe sites and overdose prevention centers are gaining momentum across the country—and the support of the Biden administration. What is your view?

Mahoney: We have embraced harm reduction as a viable path to recovery for many individuals, believing that addiction occurs on a spectrum. And wherever people are, it is critical to help them end their chaotic relationship with substances—and that looks different from one person to the next. Most of all, we do whatever it takes to keep people alive. Recover Wyoming is not a safe syringe site. But we do have a basket of harm reduction supplies stocked with the overdose reversal drug Narcan, fentanyl test strips, alcohol swabs and wound-care supplies for those who inject drugs. No questions are asked; they can grab what they need and leave, and no drugs are consumed on the premises.

The Wyoming Department of Health says it supports evidence-based harm reduction strategies to prevent overdose and disease transmission that conform to state laws—and currently, that does not include syringe services programs. Do you think harm reduction will eventually find a wider acceptance in Wyoming?

Mahoney: It is generally conservative here—even having our basket of harm reduction supplies can be shocking to some people. They believe this encourages individuals to keep using drugs. But if they had a loved one who died from an overdose, they might understand and change their minds about the potential benefits of harm reduction.

There is a lack of drug treatment nationwide, with only a fraction of those in need able to get help. In Wyoming, there are both publicly supported and private treatment centers across the state. What programs do they offer?

Mahoney: Treatment centers can be abstinence-based, or focus on long-term residential [treatment] and medication-assisted treatment (MAT), which combines drugs to reduce cravings [with] behavioral therapies. Some programs are faith-based. While abstinence has been a traditional approach, many such programs are starting to implement new strategies.

Are there any barriers to getting treatment?

Mahoney: Accessing services can be complex, and in some locations, there are waiting lists to get in. People come to us and express their readiness for treatment, but the window of opportunity can be small. They have to jump through many hoops: a clinical assessment, a medical checkup, a TB test, and, of course, figuring out how to pay for it if they are underinsured or not insured at all. Some providers only take men or women or don’t allow women and children, forcing mothers to make a difficult choice. And if they locate a center that will take them that is far from where they live, getting there is a big problem.

What about the societal stigma surrounding substance use?

Mahoney: It’s still a problem. When I used meth, I never sought help—it was too embarrassing. I felt ashamed. Often, addicts don’t know who to reach out to and how to get started, and we can help them with this. In the population we serve, I’d estimate that up to 70% of those with substance use disorder have never even tried to find treatment.

Organizations such as Recover Wyoming face tremendous challenges. Are you optimistic about the future?

Mahoney: I am because, while I see people dying every day from the disease in Wyoming communities, I also know they want help—and that recovery from substance use disorder is possible.  As long as we recognize that these individuals should be treated with dignity and respect, then we will continue to save lives and make recovery a reality.

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