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Las Cruces organizations work to address mental health and substance abuse disorders

Jonny Coker
/
KRWG

According to a 2020 report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, around 7% of New Mexicans have a substance use disorder. Phillip Fiuty is a technical advisor at the New Mexico Department of Health’s harm reduction program. He said that his journey into harm reduction began almost 40 years ago during the HIV epidemic.

“One of my best friends was fine one day. And was not fine the next day. And very shortly thereafter, passed away from AIDS. There were no services or anything at that time, so a whole bunch of us kind of decided that we were, I don’t know,” he said. “The message that we were getting from the world at large at the time was that we should all just go away and die. So we began trying to copy interventions and things that we read about that were happening in Europe, which included getting ahold of syringes and distributing them, we even got a hold of Naloxone in the early 90s and stuff, started using it in our community. I had no idea at the time that it was going to become somewhat of a career choice.”

Las Cruces organizations work to address mental health and substance abuse disorders

According to the New Mexico Department of Health, in 2019, 74% of all overdose deaths in New Mexico involved opioids. Josh Swatek is the harm reduction program manager. He said that to prevent incidents of overdose, a multi-faceted approach is needed.

“Pieces of our program include a syringe exchange program where we provide clean and sterile equipment to avoid things like bloodborne pathogens. We provide Naloxone so that people can reverse an opioid overdose. We provide education on how to prevent the likelihood of overdoses when people do use substances,” he said. “Harm reduction has been well researched. It’s been shown that harm reduction is a successful method of making folks more likely to get into treatment, and when they get into treatment, more likely to succeed.”

Harm reduction service is just one aspect of battling the opioid epidemic, and for Tenika Sosa-Gonzalez, a board-certified psychiatric mental health nurse, Las Cruces has a long way to go in terms of treating those suffering from substance abuse disorders.

“I think that services that we have are not fully targeted at areas that we need them the most. We have a really, really high rate of youth and adolescents right now that are struggling and need support. There’s not a lot of support for those kids other than in-patient hospitalization. There’s a lot of challenges when it comes to finding outpatient care. And I think we see that even in the professional world amongst especially healthcare providers. Even middle-class people with health insurance, [trying] to find a counselor can be incredibly difficult. There can be really long wait times to find someone when you need a prescriber. And there are even fewer resources if you have a substance use disorder.”

Jonny Coker
/
KRWG
Tenika Sosa-Gonzalez speaks on the state of mental health programs in Las Cruces.

According to the CDC, in 2021, New Mexico had one of the highest rates of suicide in the U.S. and ranked in the top ten in drug overdose mortality. These numbers are part of the reason why Sosa-Gonzalez says that there need to be more resources in the state for those struggling.

“Resources need to be available regardless of people’s ability to pay. And resources should be available everywhere. Not just in Albuquerque, not just in Santa Fe, not just in Las Cruces. Resources need to be available to everyone statewide. I also think that I would really ask that legislators mandate for providers [to continue] education on stigma and on person-first language, and to really revisit and understand the disease process that we’re looking at.”

Kasandra Gandara is the Mayor Pro-Tem in Las Cruces, and founder of the Las Cruces Suicide Prevention Task Force. She said the task force works with other organizations like the LC3 Behavioral Health Collaborative to help address substance abuse and mental health issues in the community.

“We’ve been working on educating the public about suicide, signs and symptoms, how to talk to somebody who is contemplating suicide, safety planning with one, and being able to link and refer folks.”

When asked about the closure of Memorial Medical Center’s psychiatric ward and the constant delays in getting it back open, Gandara said that she understands the public’s frustration and that conversations are being had between the city, county, and executives of Memorial Medical.

Jonny Coker
/
KRWG

“The worst thing we can do is to open something up not having the infrastructure in place and then having to close it down. We want to do it right. I’m trusting that The Peak, alongside Memorial Medical executive staff is doing what they can as quickly as they can to get this up and running.”

Gandara said that the target date for Memorial’s psychiatric ward to open is now in July. When KRWG reached out to Memorial Medical to confirm this, we did not receive a response.

Jonny Coker is a Multimedia Journalist for KRWG Public Media. He has lived in Southern New Mexico for most of his life, growing up in the small Village of Cloudcroft, and earning a degree in Journalism and Media Studies at New Mexico State University.
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