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Hundreds Gather At Final Public Hearing On State’s Opioid Abuse Crisis

Two to three men and women in Massachusetts will die today from heroin or other opiate overdoses, according to current death rates.

“There were three times as many deaths associated with opioid overdoses last year as there were automobile accident deaths,” said Gov. Charlie Baker, speaking at the fourth and final hearing yesterday of a task force he appointed to vet the state’s drug abuse problem. “That’s really all you need to know to understand that it’s in fact a crisis.”

The task force is expected to make its recommendations on how to deal with the statewide drug crisis by next month. Ahead of that deadline, hundreds of people turned out at the State House Thursday to relate their stories of addiction and recovery.

WBUR’s Martha Bebinger joins Morning Edition with a report on what was said during Thursday’s hearing.

To hear the full report, click on the audio player above.

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Suicide Prevention Campaign Approaches Men ‘On Their Own Terms’

Franklin Cook, project manager of the MassMen campaign, and Candice Porter, executive director of Screening for Mental Health, using the MassMen website. (Lynn Jolicoeur/WBUR)

Franklin Cook, project manager of the MassMen campaign, and Candice Porter, executive director of Screening for Mental Health, using the MassMen website. (Lynn Jolicoeur/WBUR)

Franklin Cook of Watertown knows the issue of suicide among men all too well. In 1978, when Cook was 24, his father killed himself.

After that Cook struggled with addiction and found recovery, suffered from depression but got treatment, and built a career in suicide prevention and suicide grief support.

He knows many men struggle to seek help for mental illness.

More men than women die by suicide, and across the country middle-aged white men have the highest suicide rate of any age group.

“But the care-giving world also doesn’t market or doesn’t design programs specifically around our species, if you will,” Cook says. “[Some men] might not want to sit down face-to-face and talk to somebody for 55 minutes about their feelings. I’ve done that hundreds of times with a counselor, and it works for me, but it doesn’t work for all men.”

Now Cook is helping lead a Massachusetts suicide prevention campaign centered around a new website called MassMen.org. It was created by the Wellesley-based organization Screening for Mental Health, with funding from the state Department of Public Health.

On the site, people can complete an anonymous mental health screening in about two minutes to find out whether their feelings and behaviors are consistent with depression or another mental health disorder. They get results immediately and after the screening a “video doctor” does an interactive assessment.

“I’m concerned about your symptoms. I want to be sure you’re aware of the impact this can have on your health and well-being,” the video doctor, portrayed by an actor, says in one portion of the segment. “To help me understand how you feel about taking steps to feel less depressed, I have a question for you. On a scale of one to nine, how ready would you say you are to take steps to feel better?”

Candice Porter is executive director of Screening for Mental Health and a clinical social worker. She points out that while middle-aged men have the highest suicide rate, many of them may not be “moping around,” appearing overtly sad or depressed.

“They might mask their symptoms in a lot of ways that we’re not recognizing, and they’re not seeking the help,” Porter says. But she adds that even though the men might not seek counseling or treatment, many people who die by suicide visit their doctor for some physical ailment in the months leading up to their death.

“We do know that the primary care physicians are not asking the question, ‘How are you feeling? Are you depressed? Have you had thoughts of wanting to end your life?'” Porter explains. “So part of what we’re also trying to do is just increase awareness that these questions should be asked.”

The MassMen site also directs users to resources including mental health services in their communities.

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Not Male Or Female: Molding Bodies To Fit A Genderfluid Identity

From left to right, Devon Jones, Dale Jackson and Taan Shapiro. (Courtesy)

From left to right, Devon Jones, Dale Jackson and Taan Shapiro. (Courtesy)

For more than three years, Devon Jones gave himself weekly shots of testosterone to align his body with the feeling that he was male. The shots worked. Jones’ voice dropped, body fat shifted from his thighs and breasts into his neck and stomach, and he sprouted facial hair.

But then last year, Jones, a 27-year-old author who lives in Dorchester, stopped taking the hormone.

“I realized that wasn’t the look I was ultimately going for,” Jones said. “I wanted to still have breasts that had substance to them, they’d really shrunk and I wanted that back.”

And Jones wants the option of getting pregnant and having a child, something he could not do while testosterone overpowered estrogen in his body. It’s not clear if he will be able to get pregnant now.

“I’ll only know that when I try,” he said.

Jones still use male pronouns. The changes to his voice are permanent. But as estrogen again becomes the dominant hormone in Jones’ body, the hair on his face doesn’t grow as quickly and his body fat has shifted back.

“I have a more curvy feminine shape. I’m more comfortable now with people being confused. So it’s an evolving process. It’s weird to be in the middle of it right now actually, and talking about it,” Jones said, his voice trailing off.

Jones is part of a growing group of young adults who are genderfluid and are using hormone therapy and surgery to create bodies that matches this identity.

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Wishing They Asked Tough Questions: Reflecting On A Father’s Suicide

Valerie Alfeo files through a table full of old family photos at her home in Waltham. Her father, Ted Washburn, took his own life in 2011. He was 54. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Valerie Alfeo files through a table full of old family photos at her home in Waltham. Her father, Ted Washburn, took his own life in 2011. He was 54. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Part of an occasional series, “Suicide: A Crisis In The Shadows

WALTHAM, Mass. — TJ Washburn first learned his father, Ted Washburn, was battling depression in 2009. That’s when the then-52-year-old starved himself for three days.

“He said basically that he was planning on not eating or drinking anything until he passed away,” TJ recalls. “And obviously shock kind of sets in at first.”

Ted, who lived in Waltham, spent a few weeks in two psychiatric units. And during that time his son was stunned to learn he had attempted suicide at the age of 21 — two years before he started having children.

“To think that he could have taken his life before I was born was something that was just… surreal is the best word that I keep using — that I can’t really imagine,” TJ says.

But in 2009, when their father got out of the hospital and right back into his routine as a truck driver, TJ and his sister, Valerie Alfeo, say he didn’t talk about his depression. And they didn’t ask much.

“I was scared. I mean, for me it’s half of the people who created me. You still have them on a pedestal to some degree, even at late 20s, early 30s,” TJ reflects. “I mean, I still would go to him, ask him for his advice. I guess I wasn’t prepared to be kind of on the other end, and be the one giving any advice.”

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More Than 1,700 Reports Of Drug-Exposed Newborns Seen In Mass. Last Year

Massachusetts child welfare officials say they investigated more than 1,700 reports of drug-exposed newborns over the final 10 months of last year.

Over that period, the state saw a more than 40 percent increase in reports of drug-exposed newborns, from 132 instances in March 2014 to 190 in December, according to data provided by the Department of Children and Families. The December total was down from the agency’s peak recording of 236 in September that year.

Experts say it’s a sign of just how dire the state’s opioid epidemic has become.

Jonathan Davis, chief of newborn medicine at the Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center, tells the Boston Herald that Massachusetts hospitals combined used to report two or three drug-exposed babies being born per day, but it’s now more like 10 to 15 per day.

Davis said several initiatives have been created to address the issue, pointing to Project Respect, which provides substance abuse treatment for pregnant women and their newborns at Boston Medical Center and serves more than 150 mother-baby pairs each year.

The state started tracking drug-exposed babies last March.

With reporting by The Associated Press and the WBUR Newsroom

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AG Healey Seeks Ban On Sale Of E-Cigarettes To Minors

Attorney General Maura Healey on Tuesday filed proposed regulations that would ban the sale of electronic cigarettes to minors, prohibit free product giveaways or sampling, and require the devices be kept out of the reach of customers at stores.

Currently there is no state law prohibiting the sale of e-cigarettes to minors in Massachusetts. Several cities and towns have approved their own local age restrictions.

The regulations would treat e-cigarettes like other tobacco products including cigarettes, cigars and chewing tobacco – including banning most sales of e-cigarettes except through face-to-face purchases and not through vending machines except in adults-only establishments.

Attorney General Maura Healey (AP)

Attorney General Maura Healey (AP)

The regulations would also define as an unfair or deceptive practice the sale of nicotine liquid or gel without the use of child-resistant packaging that meets federal standards.

“The regulations make it clear that in Massachusetts an e-cigarette is a cigarette when it comes to protecting our kids,” Healey said.

The regulations don’t extend all current smoking prohibitions to e-cigarettes, including the state’s workplace smoking ban. Healey said she supports legislation that would require users of e-cigarettes to abide by additional smoking regulations.

The metal or plastic battery-powered devices resemble cigarettes but heat a liquid nicotine solution, creating vapor that users inhale.

While e-cigarettes contain fewer toxic substances than burning traditional cigarettes, health officials warn they shouldn’t be considered harmless and say much more needs to be known about long-term effects of e-cigarette use.

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As Health Incentives Rise, Many Get Paid To Work Out And Eat Kale

Laura Smith uses her Nutrisavings app to check the healthy score of pasta sauce at a Shaw's in Waltham. (Martha Bebinger/WBUR)

Laura Smith uses her Nutrisavings app to check the healthy score of pasta sauce at a Shaw’s in Waltham. (Martha Bebinger/WBUR)

Laura Smith scans a wall of pasta sauce jars at a Shaw’s in Waltham, and reaches for her favorite.

“It looks like it would be fantastic for you,” Smith says, showing off the label. “It looks like someone just plucked a bunch of tomatoes and put them in a jar.”

But when Smith scans the jar’s bar code, using an app on her phone, her smile fades.

“It’s a 33,” she says and then pauses. “Wow, 33?”

The Nutrisavings iPhone app

The Nutrisavings iPhone app

That’s 33 out of 100 on a healthy food scoring system developed by Newton-based Nutrisavings. Not good. Smith types pasta sauce into the Nutrisavings app and finds one that scores much better, at 75.

“Francesco Rinaldi,” Smith says, turning the jar in her hand. “No salt added, it’s a healthier option, that’s what I’m going to go with.”

Nutrisavings scores more than 200,000 foods on a scale of zero to 100. Sodas are typically a zero. Many fresh fruits and vegetables are up near 100. The company has partnerships with 80 supermarket chains around the country, including Shaw’s, where the score for everything Smith buys is totaled when she checks out.

Smith earned $10 this month just for using the program. She’ll get another $10 every month that her average score is 60 or higher.

“That’s $20 essentially free money just by making modestly healthy decisions and going to the store, which are things I’m going to do anyway,” Smith says.

Who pays? Her health insurance plan, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care.

The goal is “to get people to understand the value of what they’re putting in their mouths,” says Sue Amsel, a senior product portfolio manager at Harvard Pilgrim. Continue reading

Addiction Expert Discusses Statewide Surge In Heroin Overdoses

An educational pamphlet and samples of naloxone, a drug used to counter the effects of opiate overdose, are displayed at a fire station in Taunton. (Elise Amendola/AP)

An educational pamphlet and samples of naloxone, a drug used to counter the effects of opiate overdose, are displayed at a fire station in Taunton. (Elise Amendola/AP)

State Police are trying to understand a surge of heroin and opioid overdoses. Authorities tell the Boston Globe that 114 people died of suspected opioid overdoses last month across the state — double the number in November.

That number also doesn’t include the state’s three biggest cities: Boston, Worcester and Springfield.

Dr. Daniel Alford, who oversees the clinical addiction research and education unit at Boston Medical Center, joins Morning Edition to discuss this statewide rise in suspected heroin deaths.

To hear the full interview, click on the audio player above.

Interview Highlights:

On why the heroin is so deadly:

DA: “I think we’re learning a lot from our patients who are seeking addiction treatment. They certainly have talked about a difference in appearance of the heroin that they’re seeing — there seem to be more crystals. It’s being cut with something, and whether it’s fentanyl or, some people have talked about methamphetamine, it seems that it’s being cut with things that are potentially very lethal.”

“I saw a patient just the other day who talked about the heroin now causing them to pass out within minutes of taking it, so they’re very nervous about using dealers that they’ve never dealt with before. And it’s really an opportunity to start talking to patients about overdose risk and making sure they have Narcan available and that they are not using alone.”

On whether restrictions on prescriptions are causing people to turn to heroin:

DA: “As you make one drug less available there is a tendency to start using other drugs, and heroin is certainly readily available, cheap and quite pure.”

On how doctors aim to scale back on issuing pain prescriptions:

DA: “As we start to decrease the amount of prescribing that’s being done, we clearly don’t want to decrease access to these medications to those who benefit from them because of their chronic pain, but clearly we need to be more careful and safer and there is a lot of educational programs that are ongoing to train prescribers how to prescribe these more safely.”

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Listen: Sacra To Return To Liberia As UMass Medical Ups Efforts There

The doctor from Holden who’s affiliated with UMass Medical School and contracted Ebola while working with a missionary organization in Liberia is now returning to that country for the first time since being cured of the disease.

Meanwhile, the medical school is ramping up efforts to train doctors and nurses in Liberia, to build a viable health care system there. Listen to Lynn Jolicoeur’s full report above.

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A Guide To Handling Flu Season

The flu season is upon us, and the Centers for Disease Control has announced that influenza has officially reached epidemic proportions across the U.S.

Dr. Anita Barry, director of the Boston Health Commission’s infectious disease bureau, joined WBUR’s Morning Edition to discuss the flu strain and how the city is coping.

Listen above to Barry’s full conversation with WBUR’s Bob Oakes.