‘We have lost 3 musicians since Christmas’: SIMS calls for help addressing opioid crisis

The national opioid epidemic gripping the country is “rapidly seeping into communities in Austin,” according to local music nonprofit the SIMS Foundation. In 2017, the organization, which for 23 years has provided mental health and addiction recovery services for musicians and music industry professionals, experienced a surge in patients seeking treatment for opioid addiction.

SIMS director Heather Alden at the SIMS Foundation gala in 2017. Courtesy of SIMS Foundation

“We have lost three musicians since Christmas to accidental overdose,” SIMS director Heather Alden said Monday night at a monthly meeting of the Austin Music Commission, a citizen group that advises City Council.

Based on SIMS claims data, the number of musicians accessing the nonprofit’s substance abuse services more than doubled last year, from 38 in 2016 to 80 in 2017. Of those artists, 42 percent were struggling with opioid abuse. The nonprofit also saw significant increases in musicians seeking help with alcohol, cocaine and methamphetamine abuse.

SIMS taps into a network of mental health providers who offer services to the organization at reduced costs, but the influx of clients seeking assistance outpaced the foundation’s projected increases by 50 percent, straining the nonprofit’s operations.

Alden said her organization has been looking at ways other cities have successfully addressed addiction in communities, including a well-regarded City of Boston model, which helped guide their treatment strategy. At the meeting on Monday, Alden asked for financial support from the city.

She proposed collaborating with the City of Austin on a pilot program to develop a treatment strategy and public awareness campaign around the opioid crisis in the music community that could be spun out to address the crisis in the city at large.

The Music Commission unanimously passed a resolution directing the city manager to explore creating the pilot program.

“This pilot program will inform the City of Austin in developing innovative approaches to the national opioid epidemic and provide the City with information, policies, programs, and data to drive this issue forward,” the resolution read.

“A proactive response right now in the music community can reduce the stigma for seeking treatment and bring awareness to this public health issue to benefit all Austinites,” Alden said in a letter sent to the mayor and City Council that she read at the meeting.

The Music Commission has sent the non-binding resolution to City Council to consider.

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