Drug addiction ‘absolutely’ linked to unemployment, even when people try to get clean
In a community that has the highest concentration of poverty among blacks and Hispanics in the nation, addiction to drugs is a big part of the problem.
Whether someone turns to drugs because of unemployment or because of influences in the community, addiction makes it pretty difficult to hold down a job, says Lanika Mabrey, who has a strong personal and professional connection to the problem.
Having grown up with two parents who struggled with addiction, Mabrey has seen the damage addiction can do. Now, as a prevention health advocate with ACR Health, she helps other people who are struggling.
“I think it’s a huge part of the struggle. Of course, we are talking about individuals that can self-medicate,” Mabrey said. “They are not feeling confident, and they are having self-esteem issues. It’s not uncommon to go get a 50-cent bag of spike, to kind of, you know, take your mind off of it. So in a city where there’s a high amount of poverty, it’s not unusual that you have a high amount of users or high issue of addiction.”
If ACR (Access Care and Resources) Health’s syringe exchange program is any indication, addiction in Syracuse is an issue.
In December 2011, ACR Health launched its “Safety First” syringe exchange program to help prevent those struggling with addiction in the community from contracting viruses such as HIV, said Erin Bortel, director of Prevention Services at ACR Health.
From December 1, 2011, when the program launched, until June 30, 2012, 75 people signed up for the program, Bortel said. That number, she said, would grow exponentially over the next few years: from 75 on June 30, 2012 to 371 on June 30, 2013, to 741 on June 30, 2014, to 1,312 people on June 30, 2015. In addition, from July 1, 2015 to April 1, 2016, 583 new people have joined the program, which is already more than the 571 who had joined the previous year, Bortel said.
Both of Mabrey’s parents contracted HIV through their addictions, and both eventually died from the HIV/AIDS virus.
“I think my whole family struggled with addiction,” Mabrey said. “I’m probably the first generation to not. So, more than see it, I’ve lived it. Unfortunately I had an aunt who overdosed one Christmas. So it’s been very much a part of my life. It’s actually been so much a part of my life I’ve been running from it myself.”
Mabrey estimated that every day in her job at ACR Health, she meets at least one person struggling with addiction. Part of her job involves testing clients for HIV. She must ask every person she tests if he or she currently is struggling with addiction, because HIV can be transmitted through needle use.
“Every individual I work with, every client that I serve, one of the questions is, ‘Are you using a substance?’ ‘Can we support you if you are?’” Mabrey said. “Where can we support you and how can we help you?”
John Arcaro, assistant director of Prevention Services at ACR Health, and a former addiction counselor at Syracuse Behavioral Healthcare, says that based on his experience, there “absolutely” is a link between addiction and unemployment.
Because addicts consider addiction their first priority, it makes it very difficult for them to hold together the other things in their lives, Arcaro said.
“Having the addiction, that is your primary focus,” he said. “Everything else kind of falls out of relevance. So you have individuals feeding their habit, and different areas of their lives will suffer because of it. Their job, their relationship with their friends, their ability to pay bills. So that steady income is one of the first things to go.”
Not only that, but if an addict wants to get clean, that can also conflict with the ability to land or hold down a job, Arcaro said.
“We found that especially in early recovery, individuals aren’t employed and they can’t hold down a job because they struggle with staying clean,” Arcaro said. “In a halfway house, when you have treatment hours for about 10 hours a day, when can you go to work? You have a curfew of usually 8, 9 at night. And, you’re in outpatient treatment all day for substance abuse, so it’s very difficult to hold down a job and keep those staples in your life that are keeping you clean.”
If a client admits to struggling with addiction, Mabrey said, that person would be referred to the substance program at ACR Health. But because of the stigmas often associated with addiction, many clients choose not to come forward.
Arcaro explained that because addictions are mostly to illegal drugs such as heroin, people who are addicted also run the risk of getting arrested and building up a record.
So even if an addict eventually gets clean, having any arrest record will make it that much more difficult for the person to ever get a job. This often leads to former addicts having to settle for a lesser job or no job at all, Arcaro said.
“You’re taking away their ability to provide income for themselves and their family while they’re in prison, and then when they come out of prison, you make it even more difficult for them to get a job, because now they have to report this,” Arcaro said.
For someone who grew up with parents who were addicts, Mabrey, now 41, was relatively lucky. Her mother and father pushed her toward education even while they struggled.
For as long as Mabrey can remember, her mother relied on social services until she went back to school when Mabrey was a teenager, Mabrey said. Her father worked as an auto shop detailer on and off, but Mabrey said it was on and off due to his struggles with addiction and suffering from PTSD from serving in Vietnam. At some point, Mabrey’s father was awarded 100 percent benefits, so he chose to rely solely on that for income, Mabrey said.
Her grandparents, who became sober around the time she was born, helped to raise her, Mabrey said.
Mabrey overcame her environment to be the first generation in her family to graduate from college, and she now holds a job with steady pay. But she admits she has lingering struggles from growing up the way she did.
As the oldest child of four, Mabrey felt responsible for caring for her younger siblings while her parents were focused on their addiction, Mabrey said. She had to learn how to do things like cook, and she also had to get used to spending a lot of time alone.
She clearly remembers being separated only by a door while her parents would shoot up heroin .
“I remember sitting outside the bathroom, because they would go into the bathroom and shoot up for hours,” Mabrey said. “And so I can clearly remember having to do that, or feeling obligated as a child to kind of stand watch. And I think that that is still something that I carry as an adult. The need to save, or the need to be helpful. I can probably say that is the most present memory I have.”
Although Mabrey was able to break out of the cycle of her grandparents and parents struggling with addiction — in that she has no struggles with drug addiction — she acknowledges this can be hard for others.
“Just gauging from my own family, very difficult,” Mabrey said. “Out of the four children, only two of us obtained a degree. I don’t have a lot of other family members, cousins and things like that. I was, like I said, first generation college student. So I think it’s very rare. I don’t dispute that, from what I know in my own circle.”
Because of everything that happened during her childhood, Mabrey said she still sometimes struggles with things like self-esteem.
“I can say for myself, personally, I struggled with self-esteem, self-awareness, and self-confidence,” Mabrey said. “And I think that I was maybe in my early 30s questioning my mom as to whether or not she loved me. I couldn’t distinguish that that was a struggle. Had nothing to do with me, but when you’re a kid, you blame yourself for everything, right? So I think that that’s a common issue for those that grow up in addiction.”
But to Mabrey, family struggles turn into community struggles. She points to Syracuse, saying city officials must look at the city as a whole as it faces issues such as unemployment, addiction and violence.
For example, Mabrey believes if more job opportunities were created, fewer people would likely struggle with addiction.
“I think the city has a huge responsibility to its residents when it comes down to poverty,” Mabrey said. “Not just for addiction, but poverty can lead to other issues, health and wellness issues. We are talking about depression, we are talking about violence, we are talking about a number of issues that can stem from poverty. And our city not only should take responsibility for where we are, but have a huge lift in fixing it.”
Mabrey also points to another reason the community struggles with addiction: people’s unwillingness to help out one another.
“I just grew up in a different time where you would want the village to help you raise your child, or be an influence in your life,” Mabrey said. “And this is a different kind of village. We seem to be a little colder, a little less considerate. It’s the ‘my four and no more,’ as long as my family is all set, everyone else can pretty much take care of themselves.”
Mabrey noticed this shift in the community around 10 to 15 years ago and said she believes the situation could make the addiction problem worse.
“I absolutely do,” Mabrey said. “But I don’t know if we can take worse. So I’m hoping that we will get to a place where we miss that kind of energy in our community, and people will get on board with it. But it would be unfortunate if it does get worse.”
The solution? If the addiction problem in the community is to end, Mabrey said, it would require the efforts of politicians and community members to help those who need it.
“I would encourage from politics all the way down to the community, addiction is an illness and we need resources in the community to address it that way,” Mabrey said. “We have to realize that sometimes we have to meet people where they are. So you know just flooding the community with resources, whether it’s more jobs, whether it’s more programming like ACR Health does, you just really have to address this as an illness.”
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