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No Hoopla, Not a Party

by Albert B. Kelly, Mayor, City of Bridgeton

In a recent South Jersey Times editorial a number of officials, I among them, were taken to task for the way the launch of the County’s “Recovery on Wheels” program was announced earlier this month. If I understand the point made by the editorial board, it was this: While the program itself is a worthy effort, the way it was launched was distasteful because addiction and the damage caused by addiction is a serious and sober thing and our launch seemed quite the contrary.

The Times Editorial Board is certainly entitled to their view and perhaps they have a valid point. However, even if the launch itself was bad form on our part (I’m not convinced that it was), this should not be taken as an indication that we are either unmindful of the gravity of the problem or that we are taking a casual and unconcerned approach in attempting to address it.

Yes, we were guilty of a little celebrating, but that celebration was far from a party. If we celebrate, it’s not because we’re glib in our attitudes toward addiction and related issues, but because we are painfully aware of several things—how few resources are genuinely available, what is involved with accessing such resources, the challenges of coordinating among various stakeholders, and actually getting a working program up and running and out to those who need it.

For my own part, I am fully aware of what’s at stake in a personal way, having had a loved one struggle with addiction. Honestly, I don’t know whether this mobile program would have played a part in preventing my loved one’s untimely death from addiction, but the idea that it could have and that it might do so for someone in the future—that’s something to hold on to.

If there was celebration that day it was not because we underestimate the gravity of the situation. Rather, we’re aware of the difficulty in gaining public support and resources for addiction-related services when too many still see addiction as a character flaw of weak-willed “drug addicts.” We know that it’s a disorder worthy of compassion even as we continue to learn what works and what doesn’t.

If we’re guilty of celebrating prematurely, that may be a fair charge, but it’s because there’s so damned little to celebrate in the area of health and wellness in a county that consistently ranks 21 out of 21 in terms of statewide health rankings, much of them related to substance abuse and addiction.

So yes, we did celebrate this small beginning because we know how much more needs to be done, that are no magic solutions, and it’s something to sustain us when the next four things we try may not work or work as effectively as we’d hoped. But we will keep trying and perhaps celebrating.

More generally, if we were ham-handed and inelegant in trying to bring attention and exposure to this program, I’ll concede as much and say that it likely won’t be the last time public officials, individually or collectively (me included), will be clumsy in trying to highlight whatever it is that’s being launched or dedicated given the greatly diminished capacity of local media to cover the various local beats as they once did.

This is not a criticism of these outlets, but an acknowledgement that the journalism landscape has changed a lot in the last few years and the revenues that once allowed for coverage of local things by regular beat reporters getting background, asking questions, and writing stories to inform the public has largely vanished. What’s left too often are clumsy officials hoping to get the word out.

Recovery on Wheels has its limits, to be sure, and is perhaps not nearly as worthy of celebration as the Inpatient Acute Medical Detoxification and Addiction Treatment Center that Inspira dedicated at the old Bridgeton Hospital in June of 2018, but then again we didn’t celebrate to the degree we did back then—hoopla and all.

Celebrations and photo-ops surrounding the Recovery on Wheels effort notwithstanding, it’s about those in need and the ability of Recovery on Wheels to provide some basic services, whether it be Narcan and Narcan-related education, vaccinations, referrals, or health screenings. And if this mobile initiative helps some of our residents as we hope it will, that will be something we could all celebrate.

Mayoral Musings