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Arisa Health rises to the challenge of addiction in Arkansas

Drug addiction is a complex, often polarizing issue influenced by various factors. One of those factors, which may not be the first that comes to mind, is community support. Arisa Health is a private, non-profit organization and combination of four major mental health centers in Arkansas, created in February of 2020. Dr. Laura H. Taylor is the CEO of Arisa Health, and she said Arisa acts to provide a wide variety of services to a vast amount of individuals in our region who struggle with addiction.

“So I always say that we serve individuals from womb to tomb,” Dr. Taylor said. “And we do everything from education and prevention, all the way up to crisis intervention and plugging people into inpatient care if that's needed. And so we have residential programs with outpatient programs, we are very active in the schools. Arisa Health is in 450 schools across the 41 counties that we serve. Arisa Health is a private, nonprofit organization, governed by a volunteer board of directors. And we have individuals that represent the board from across the 41 counties that we serve. We actually wanted to come together under a new name, and Arisa has some roots. The root word for ‘rise’, and that is really what we try to do is walk alongside individuals as they're riding out of whatever situation they find themselves in. Predominantly, we're treating individuals who have a mental health issue or substance use issue. And oftentimes, those come together. We lead with exceptional care that nurtures health and wellbeing for all. And our vision is to transform communities one life at a time. And so we really want to recognize the individual and come alongside them. And so that name really fits us from that perspective.”

Dr. Taylor said there is a large number of individuals who struggle with drug addiction in the state of Arkansas. She says a major cause of this is opioid prescriptions, which Arkansas has a surplus of, compared to other states. 

“There are more prescriptions out there than there are people for opioids, and prescription medications are very problematic,” Dr. Taylor said. “They're often abused. Don't get me wrong, fentanyl and synthetic drugs that are, you know, produced not through pharmaceutical companies are very, very dangerous because they're not regulated, of course, and they're often much stronger than what people are thinking they're going to get. And so they're very, they're very dangerous and deadly.”

Dr. Taylor said Arisa Health has been lucky to receive the amount of philanthropic support it has from the Arkansas community. Arisa has expanded its services and physical footprint around Northwest Arkansas since its creation four years ago. Most recently, the organization received a four million dollar grant from Jane Hunt to construct a new facility in Benton County. 

“That is the largest gift of the legacy organizations we’ve ever received,” Dr. Taylor said. “And then, right on the heels of that we were so very fortunate to receive a $1.25 million gift from the Walker Foundation. Now historically, the Walker Foundation has been a very loyal and supportive friend to Ozark Guidance Center and those gifts have come in the past year and they have just really been helpful to us. The Hunt gift is going to help us expand services and bring a new building to our population that is growing exponentially in Benton County. And the Walker gift is going to help us refurbish facilities on our Springdale campus where our home offices are. I love the heart of both Jane Hunt and Mandy Macke who have had such a desire to see people that we serve, kind of the people that don't always have the same ability to advocate for themselves, they’re often under insured or insured by governmental payers. And so they just have a lot of struggle in the community, and the fact that both of these foundations have the ability to see the need and the desire and heart to help has been fabulous for us. We will be looking for additional philanthropic support to complete the building in Benton County, but, that gift has been huge from Jane Hunt.”

Part of Hunt’s gift was designated towards providing scholarships to people in the state pursuing a Master’s degree to become a mental health professional. Dr. Taylor said this aid is vital. 

“There is a tremendous work shortage in Arkansas,” Dr. Taylor said. “There are only a handful of counties in Arkansas that are not considered shortage areas, designated shortage areas for mental health professionals. And so we really need more providers to provide better access and make sure there are services for individuals who seek care.”

Dr. Taylor said part of the struggle to get clean lies with the stigma behind drug addiction and recovery, in addition to shortages of mental health professionals in the state.

“Every person knows someone who struggles with an addiction,” Dr. Taylor said. “Whether that's in their family or whether that's a relative. We have this kind of the misperception that individuals who have addictions are, you know, not functioning, working, contributing members of our community. But oftentimes they are until their addiction gets so serious that they lose family or they lose employment. The other thing we need to understand is that there is stigma. But it's simply because I think we do not understand and accept that addiction is another type of disorder. Not not all of us are prone to an addiction, just like not all of us are prone to having diabetes. But if you have it, it is an illness that you have to learn to manage and control or it will take control of you. So treatment works. There are new treatments, and there is medication assisted treatment that is particularly promising and helpful. And so I think we just have to come alongside people who have addiction, and help them as they journey towards recovery. And I will tell you, oftentimes that journey toward recovery is not linear. It's just a hard thing. I don't know what you love to do. Me, I love chocolate, and to never again have chocolate would be a real challenge. We all have things to think about, like totally giving those up would be very difficult.”

Dr. Taylor said treatment looks different for everyone. For some, abstinence is necessary. For others, she said starting with different forms of harm reduction might be better. 

“Because that's the first step, making sure that people don't have behaviors that are so dangerous that they put themselves or other people at risk,” Dr. Taylor said. “And we've made great headway with knowing not to drive and drive, ‘buzzed drinking’ is driving under the influence, but we've got a lot more work to do. And since the pandemic, we've seen a huge increase in the use of substance abuse. Over the course of time, we also see experimentation at younger and younger ages. We have way too many individuals who are not receiving care and the de-facto treatment has become a jail. I really think as a community, we have to work on changing that equation. And I'm not being critical, in any way, of our jails. They really lean in and try to do the best job they can but they are not mental health providers. So to the extent that we can, you know, I'm very encouraged by what we see with co-responding that's really growing in our community with law enforcement and mental health professionals responding together. I think that's a wonderful thing. And we want to see more of that. So, the other thing is that I said it earlier, but treatment works. One in five adults experience mental illness, one in six youth experience a mental health disorder. This is something that we really all want to learn more about and treatment works. We should encourage people to get treatment and we want to prevent suicide. Suicide is the twelfth leading cause of death overall, and for individuals who are 10 to 14 it is the second leading cause of death. So this is serious business that we're in.”

For more information on Arisa Health, the services it provides and how you might contribute to their cause, you can visit their website.

Ozarks at Large transcripts are created on a rush deadline by reporters. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of KUAF programming is the audio record.

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Sophia Nourani is a KUAF producer and reporter.
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