Pictured above: Darren McFadden. Photos provided

 

When Justin Buck, executive director of Wolfe Street Foundation in Little Rock, first sat down with Rebecca Pittillo, president of the Blue & You Foundation for a Healthier Arkansas, and Curtis Barnett, president and CEO of Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield, for a chat about Wolfe Street’s idea for treating juvenile substance abuse disorder, he carried with him the usual retinue of facts and figures.

 

Nothing he brought to the meeting, however, had the impact of an off-the-cuff comment he gave in response to one of Pittillo’s questions.

Rebecca Pittillo

“I said, ‘There’s been an alarming rise in youth death from overdoses. There’s been an alarming rise in youth substance use and a cultural normalization of youth substance abuse,” Buck said, “and Rebecca said, ‘Well where do these young people go to get help?’

 

“I said, ‘Unfortunately, unless you have a whole lot of money, there is not a place to get help. The best place that you could be if you’re a young person with substance use disorder in Arkansas is in Division of Youth Services custody — essentially, be in prison.’”

 

Pittillo remembers the moment precisely, the numbing shock of Buck’s statement followed by an almost immediate resolve to be part of the solution.

 

“I remember so clearly sitting in my office, and when he said that, it just, it took me aback,” she said. “I sat there for a second and tried to catch my breath. Tears were in my eyes. I mean it’s just not okay. Our kids deserve better in the state of Arkansas.

 

“I said to Justin, ‘What do you need to get this done?’”

 

Today, thanks to investment and support by both the Blue & You Foundation and Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield, Wolfe Street Foundation has taken the first bold steps toward creating a better Arkansas for children and youth caught in the web of addiction. The Blue & You Foundation funded three years of Wolfe Street’s new community youth recovery program and has seeded other related community initiatives to provide a comprehensive framework for dealing with the issue.

 

“The most important thing to me is not only are they helping us launch [our program] but they funded a whole system of care for young people,” Buck said. “They funded [the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock] and Children’s Hospital [in Little Rock] to launch an out-patient clinical treatment program for young people with substance use disorders. They funded Immerse Arkansas to provide more trauma-informed therapy resources for young people. They funded the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to work on that part of this problem, and they also have funded further studies to make sure we’re implementing the right solutions.”

 

In step with the foundation’s work, Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield took on the equally ambitious task of spearheading initiatives to foster a culture of support and understanding for individuals in recovery and those struggling with mental health conditions. Under Barnett’s leadership, the company quickly became a national model for providing innovative approaches to improve behavioral health awareness, access and outcomes for the members and communities it serves.

 

“Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield has stepped up in an intentional, collaborative manner,” Buck said. “Among the things the company has done is they have hired a team of peer recovery support specialists to serve their members. [Behavioral health] is an issue that has not always gotten a lot of attention, but [the company] has shown a lot of leadership and intentionality.”

For their commitment, the organization is awarding Barnett and Pittillo the Wolfe Street Foundation Recovery Leadership Award, which will be presented at the 2024 Red Carpet Recovery Gala on April 25. The event, slated for the Venue at Westwind in North Little Rock, will feature Arkansas native and former Razorback and NFL running back Darren McFadden as keynote speaker.

 

“The gala is a really great way for us to recognize what these organizations are doing for the recovery community,” Buck said. “More than that, it’s about honoring the leadership of Rebecca and Curtis, who have really brought their organizations into a solution space in behavioral health. Without that leadership, I don’t know if there would be that kind of focus and attention showing us the way to a collaborative solution space.”

 

If all politics is local, as the saying goes, then all philanthropy is personal, and that concept readily applies to the 2024 honorees. Both talked about their individual connection to the issue of behavioral health in the community and how it was forged by the most intimate experiences possible.

Curtis Barnett

“I have a close family member who has struggled with behavioral health issues, including addiction, so our family has experienced firsthand the impact of this terrible disease,” Barnett said. “We’ve witnessed how addiction can change someone you know, love and have cared for their entire life into someone you hardly recognize.

 

“It takes them to people, places and experiences they never would have chosen otherwise, and it takes a tremendous toll on the emotional and physical health of not only the person who is struggling, but the entire family, especially the person who is closest to them, who then becomes a caregiver.”

 

Barnett said living that experience revealed not only the difficulties of addiction itself but the profound impact treatment can have to help reset lives and put families back together. He also noted how far out of reach life-saving treatment is for many families, if only because of the stigma and shame that keeps them from asking for help.

 

“Like so many families who have embarked upon the recovery journey, we dove in and learned as much as we could about addiction and talked to as many people as possible who were dealing with similar situations,” Barnett said. “In addition to our own experiences, we read every article, every book and watched every show we could find. We’ve learned how nearly every family in America has been affected by addiction and how compassion, care, research, treatment and recovery are too often withheld due to stigma and fear.

 

“[Addiction] is too often not discussed openly or honestly. It’s still whispered about with derision and scorn. Those suffering often come to believe they’re less deserving of care. Left untreated, addiction has significant, dire consequences, and for too many people, that leads to death or incarceration.”

 

Barnett said the lessons he learned in his personal life have shaped his mentality as a corporate leader, which has led to the multiple ways employees of Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield can seek help as needed.

 

“The majority of adults, 61 percent, are battling addiction in the workplace. This means employers are uniquely positioned to make a difference by supporting employees in recovery,” he said. “When it comes to behavioral health, Arkansas Blue Cross has tried to set a good example and lead by fostering an environment that encourages openness, honesty, safety and security and that provides helpful resources.

 

“Some fairly inexpensive yet impactful actions we have taken include offering an employee assistance program; educating our employees on what our health plan and other benefit programs cover related to treatment of behavioral health conditions; training our managers on how to recognize and help employees deal with behavioral health issues; addressing stigma in the workplace by normalizing the conversation and letting employees know they are supported; and communicating to employees about crisis and community resources that are available.”

 

Pittillo’s experience with behavioral health has endured a parent’s worst possible nightmare. In October 2020, she and her husband lost their 16-year-old son, Isaac, to suicide, an incident she remembers not only for the incredible pain and sorrow it caused, but for its lack of overt warning signs.

 

“We did not recognize the incredibly vague warning signs, Nor did any of the many other trusted adults and friends in Isaac’s life,” she said. “When the unthinkable happened, I was in complete shock and looking for answers, but when we realized there were no answers to be found, we found peace in acceptance and purpose in helping others.

 

“Because of this tragedy and my own personal mental health struggles brought on by losing Isaac, I’ve become an advocate for mental health and behavioral health care. If sharing our story and working in the mental health space prevents even one more parent from experiencing what we have, it is worth every minute I spend sharing.”

 

Pittillo has translated her commitment into tangible action, directing millions in grants through the Blue & You Foundation to create or improve mechanisms in the community that address behavioral health issues. Her work represents the latest chapter in the foundation’s stellar history of supporting health improvement programs; to date, the Blue & You Foundation has awarded over $62 million to more than 3,000 health improvement programs that reach all 75 counties in Arkansas.

 

“In 2021, we funded the first $5.3 million Blue & You Foundation Behavioral Health grants by working with trusted partners around the state to find solutions,” Pittillo said. “The first round of large behavioral health grants was dedicated to three significant areas of impact: early intervention, improving access and integration of behavioral health care, and normalizing the conversation on mental health.

 

“Since 2021, we have seen significant progress in the state because of programs like UAMS AR ConnectNow, Arkansas Children’s HealthySteps, [National Alliance on Mental Illness] Clubs and NAMI on Campus, and UAMS Trauma Resource Initiative for Schools.”

 

Pittillo said these efforts brought other community needs to light, including that of youth and adolescents, in the specific areas of trauma, substance use disorder and suicide prevention.

 

“In 2022, we began focusing entirely on behavioral health needs in one of our grant cycles,” she said. “Now each year, we award up to $1 million in grants focused on behavioral health. This past year, $557,000 was specifically targeted to substance use treatment and recovery projects. These projects include transitional housing, virtual substance use recovery programs and addiction treatment clinical programs.”

 

One of the recipients of these grants, Wolfe Street Foundation, represents an important bulwark for helping individuals and families of all ages cope with the plague of addiction. It is a problem that is only getting worse and, thanks to high-powered opioids such as oxycontin and fentanyl, more deadly.

 

According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, nearly 97,000 people a year die from drug overdoses in the United States and more than 7 in 10 of those deaths involve opioids.

 

Arkansas Department of Health reported that as of March 2023, Calhoun County led the state in overdose deaths per 100,000 individuals at 38. In all, eight counties registered 30 or more deaths per 100,000 residents, the other seven being Poinsett at 36; Garland at 34; Sharp at 32; and Ashley, Clark, Clay and Pulaski counties at 30.

 

The picture is even more sobering when broken down by age demographics, Buck said.

 

“A research study came out from UAMS showing almost 10 percent of sixth graders are using alcohol and other substances on a regular basis,” he said. “That number only climbs as they approach graduation, up to closer to 20 percent. Yet the whole community has been really at a loss and struggling for what to do for these young people because there’s not an affordable, accessible treatment option.”

 

Wolfe Street’s new youth treatment options expand its regular suite of services for people seeking help with substance use disorder. This includes a highly successful peer recovery support specialist program, which trains individuals in recovery to help others navigate the process of getting help.

 

The organization has also been a leader in addressing another gap in community services, that of recovery housing, and combined, these two programs have greatly improved patients’ chances for sustained sobriety.

 

“If you just go to treatment, and that’s the only resource you have, it’s better than nothing, but only 15 percent of those individuals will sustain their recovery for a year,” Buck said. “What we found with peer support is that goes up to 57 percent. Then, when you layer on good, supportive recovery housing with those resources, that goes up to 71 or 72 percent.

 

“Our housing program has grown from eight beds to 32 beds over the past year. We’ve also attained national certification, and we’re working with other ethical providers to make that national standard an expectation if you’re going to be providing recovery housing. It’s the difference between heads in beds, flop houses and focused programming that we know works to help people transition back from active addiction into a supportive place where they can sustain their recovery.”

 

All of Wolfe Street Foundation’s programs benefit from proceeds from the Red Carpet Recovery Gala and combine to create a better system for addressing needs within the community by reducing stigmas and boosting access to treatment for those who need it. That alone, Barnett said, is reason enough to attend the gala in support of friends, neighbors and even complete strangers, thus improving Arkansas for all.

 

“Studies find employees in recovery have equal or lower health care costs, absenteeism and job turnover compared to employees who never report a substance use disorder,” Barnett said. “Someone who is in recovery has been humbled by the disease and life’s circumstances, but they’re not defeated, and they’re certainly not weak. Often, they emerge from recovery as authentic, resilient, empathetic and inspiring. I don’t know of any employer that doesn’t desire those traits in an employee.”

 

“More than 90 percent of adults with a substance use disorder started their drug use in adolescence,” Pittillo said. “By addressing substance use in today’s adolescents, we can build a more resilient population with coping skills that will not only carry them into adulthood, but may also be shared with their own children in hopes of breaking the cycle. That is a long-term goal, but one I will work to see in my lifetime.”

 

Red Carpet Recovery Gala

Benefiting Wolfe Street Foundation

6 p.m. April 25

The Venue at Westwind, North Little Rock

wolfestreet.org