“We have a problem,” Mike Larson said last Thursday in Arbor Vitae. “A major substance abuse problem.”

Larson, a clinical psychologist at the Marshfield Clinic’s Minocqua Center, knew he was stating the obvious as he spoke for just over an hour to a group of approximately 25 people at the Arbor Vitae Community Center. 

He was there, he said before his talk, at the request of the staff of the Vilas County Public  Health Department, to talk about the basics associated opioid use disorder and substance abuse in general. 

“There’s not really a lot of new information, but there is a better understanding of how we’re going to get people into treatment and the things we need to do in our area for treatment,” Larson said. “I think the big, new ‘elephant in the room’ is the methamphetamine use in our area and how that’s going to influence things because the treatments are different for that. It’s a whole different set of problems.”

One item Larson shared with the group early in his talk was the need to get away from referring to an opioid addiction as that — an addiction. 

It should be, he said, referred to instead as a disorder. 

Before Larson spoke to the group, he told The Lakeland Times what happens when people start thinking about an opioid use disorder discussion, “we also have the flip side of it which is the pain management discussion.”

“There’s probably going to be some people in the room that talk about how this explosion of opioid use disorders and that addiction piece has influence their access to medicines for pain,” he said. 

Larson said he hopes to, at a future community talk similar to the event last Thursday, have a discussion about prevention.

“Prevention’s much harder with substance abuse disorders,” he said. “The main thing we can do is prevent exposure now. We didn’t use to worry about exposure. We’re talking about some of the early signs of things and hope we can stop them before it becomes a full blown addiction.”

Even with the spotlight on the opioid abuse situation along with the growing methamphetamine problem, Larson said the most abused substance in the state of Wisconsin is still alcohol. 

“It’s probably the number one cause of problems,” he said. “We have these things that people get exposed to and develop that substance use disorder.”

Larson said one of the things he said is beginning to be realized by more people is the focus needs to be on the bigger, broader picture.

“We’re starting to see this not as a ‘We’re going to focus on opioids this month’ and methamphetamines will be next year,” he said. “We have to focus on the substance use problem. Alcohol is certainly one of those and the others fall in line.”

All those substances, Larson said, are different.

“They’ll change from time to time,” he said. “It used to be cocaine, 15 or 20 years ago,” he said. “Now, it’s opioids and meth and then, it’ll be something else.”

Larson mentioned fetanyl as an example.

“That’s a big one coming along and will be around the corner,” he said. “That’s a whole different animal of its own.”

First of a series

Gina Egan, director of the Vilas County Public Health Department, said the presentation Larson gave last Thursday was the first in a series.

The second, planned for the February or March time frame, will focus on the law enforcement angle.

Later in the spring or early summer, the primary topic of the third session will be prevention.

Egan said she believes it’s difficult sometimes to get people “to overcome that mentality” that there isn’t the substance abuse problem in the Northwoods to the extent it is.

“That’s why we wanted to start out with Dr. Larson,” she said. “Unless you understand what addiction is doing to a person’s brain, how can you ever reach that point where you can understand what people are going through?”

Brian Jopek may be reached via email at bjopek@lakelandtimes.com.