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Marblehead Counseling Center

BOH Perspectives: How to Address Substance Abuse and Mental Health Issues

Marblehead Beacon’s first article on the Board of Health campaign this election season focused on the candidates’ perspectives and plans for the completion of the Transfer Station. Today we turn to the second and third questions, which involve issues of substance abuse and mental health concerns in our community. 


When polls open on June 20, Marbleheaders will be asked to select from among three contenders for one open three-year term. Current Board of Health member Todd Belf-Becker is not running for re-election. His seat is being contested by David Becker (Todd’s father), Tom McMahon, and Tom Massaro. 


Because the Board of Health is responsible for all issues related to public health in our community, we asked the three candidates to weigh in on some of the concerns that seem to have skyrocketed in the wake of the pandemic and are regularly the source of news stories and discussion within our community. While we asked two separate questions – one about substance abuse and the other about mental health – they are closely related, and two of the candidates understandably elected to address them together in a single response. 


The question about the misuse of alcohol and other substances read as follows: 


Marblehead is known to have a serious problem with various types of substance abuse, including the overuse of alcohol, a vaping epidemic at the high school, and opioid overdoses. Do you believe it is in the purview of the Board of Health to do anything additional to address these issues? If so, what are some specific examples? 


And the question about mental health needs in the community read: 


As is the case in most communities, local residents have mental health needs that appear to be overwhelming available resources. The Marblehead Counseling Center, for example, has hundreds of potential clients on its waiting list. Does the Board of Health have a role to play in addressing these issues? What would your specific priorities be in terms of addressing mental health concerns?


The replies we received are provided below, in alphabetical order, similar to our first Board of Health article, but this time starting with the second candidate in the rotation.


Tom McMahon (addressing issues of substance abuse)

“Marblehead Board of Health should have a role in various types of substance abuse. I would describe the ‘solution’ in the past as lazy, out of touch, and a waste of money. That being, ‘we’ll hire speakers.’ Now having grown up in Marblehead and having sat in the audience for these speakers I can tell you that the youth is not listening. The reason for that is simple, we grow up in Marblehead thinking that it's Pleasantville. These speakers did not so we don’t relate. Nothing bad happens in Marblehead……….until it does. But once it happens it's too late. It gets real and we take notice. Bumper stickers are made and widely showcased. But eventually those cars get sold and the memory of that tragedy fades and the younger generation is completely unaware of it. The tragedies that changed me are names that are unknown to current youth. It was before their time. I think the better solution is to still have speakers but to establish a program that lives within the Board of Health of family members affected by tragedy in Marblehead who are willing to speak to the students. I’d like to incorporate pictures of the victims in relatable Marblehead situations like playing soccer, sailing, hanging out in the halls with friends. It makes their lives relatable. I’ve floated this idea to some of these families and was met with positive reactions and willingness to participate. We need to show the youth that Marblehead is not immune to tragedy and to show the pain that it causes so we can help them to make better decisions.


The solution for the youth is not the solution for people who have long left our schooling system and we need to be realistic about that. They know the stakes. They watch the news. They’re willing to take the risks. Through government grant money I’d propose making drug test strips easily and anonymously available to residents so at a bare minimum we can try to make sure they aren’t part of the increasing fentanyl epidemic. If we can’t stop those people from using then at a minimum we can try to stop them from dying.  


Vaping is a little tougher. Now vaping didn’t exist when I was in high school but alcohol did and I can tell you that kids are more resourceful than you think. We didn’t buy alcohol in Marblehead. Marblehead stores are actually very competent about not selling products to minors so we went to bad parts of Salem, Lynn, or somewhere along those lines. Vaping is no different. Don’t assume kids are buying vape products at stores in town, they aren’t. And with the internet being what it is now there are even more options to obtain these products. So even though the Board of Health could play a role in educating in the schools we need the schools to step up with enforcement on school property where most of the complaints are coming from.”


Tom McMahon (addressing issues of mental health)

“This is correct that the Marblehead Counseling Center has an extensive backlog of residents looking for assistance with mental health. For me one of the even sadder parts of this is that the MCC said roughly 70% of the backlog is youth. The Board of Health gives about $60 thousand dollars to the MCC annually. We should try to trim the fat as far as expense in other areas under the purview of the board and send those funds to the MCC to help. In addition to that the board really needs to step up its efforts in helping the MCC to advertise their fundraising events. There unfortunately is no good substitute for counseling and I’ve floated some ideas to local mental health experts to see if I could find anything that sticks. One idea that got enthusiasm was something related to my time as a teenager in Marblehead. Several of the local gyms offered discounted and even free memberships to teenagers. For me and many of my friends that was our introduction to fitness and it played a vital role in me gaining confidence and feeling good mentally. My body felt great and my mind followed. One cool thing is that some of the people that inspired me as a kid including Drew Gustafoson of Achieve Fitness, Vijay Daryanani of the JCC, or Brian Malik of International Tae Kwon Do are still in Marblehead. They, and others, played a huge role in my mental development by helping me feel good physically. I think sometimes parents aren’t aware just how many opportunities there are in this town to get their kids involved in physical activities like these. I’d like to work with MHTV to add some links to the Board of Health website where we can interview some of the people I mentioned and any others so they can showcase what they offer. I’d also like to work with them to see if we can get discounted rates for teenagers like I had and then work with the schools to advertise those opportunities to the students as well as the parents. In a time when we lack the funds to support the MCC directly we need to find creative ways to help like this in addition to giving them increased support on their fundraising efforts.”


Tom Massaro (joint answer on substance abuse and mental health)

“In previous roles in New Mexico and Southwest Virginia, I have been heavily involved in the public health aspects of both substance abuse and mental health problems. As a result, I see these two areas as closely linked. I believe the Board should be very involved with both problems. Its Behavioral Health Subcommittee is a positive and very beneficial first step in that involvement. It has members from important community areas, schools, police, clinicians etc. Under Board member Joanne Miller’s leadership, it is addressing the challenges from a sensitive and caring perspective. But treating behavioral health, with substance abuse being a common comorbidity, is a major task. In a conversation with one of the Counseling Center leaders, I learned that one of the major challenges faced by the Center is a severe shortage of appropriate clinical providers - a national problem which has been accentuated by the isolation resulting from the pandemic. More people are seeking and needing more help today than we could have predicted five years ago. It is certainly the case for adolescents and young adults. With a shortage of providers, increases in well-resourced individuals paying out of pocket or through strong insurance coverage may make it even more difficult for the more vulnerable populations to receive appropriate care. The Board could investigate the reimbursement levels that are in place and make recommendations if major inequities are found.


The Board or the Subcommittee should also increase its communications about the extent of mental health problems in the society. Efforts to destigmatize the seeking of assistance for mental health problems are critical.


To have a meaningful impact, the Board or its Subcommittee will need significant additional resources. This is a great platform for seeking additional funding perhaps in collaboration with other regional jurisdictions, universities, and/or nor-profits.”


David Becker (joint answer on substance abuse and mental health)

“Our town has seen a major increase in anxiety and mental health issues of our residents (especially our children). I am sure it can be traced back to the pandemic, but it should now continue to be a focus of the Board. We have a wonderful facility in our Marblehead Counseling Center, but they are overwhelmed. So I propose that we advocate and search for the availability of more grants over and above the ARPA money that has already been allocated. 


I am sure that these anxiety and mental health issues have also contributed to the deterioration of how we relate to each other. We should work to find what solutions and help we can access. One suggestion is that it would be beneficial to have seminars on the way we all should use social media to benefit each other’s interactions.


The Board of Health has an existing mental health committee which is dealing with the broad spectrum of mental health issues in our town.”