The center, in partnership with Berkshire Health Systems, opened the 17-bed Keenan House for Women in October on Seymour Street. It will serve women recovering from addiction during the early stages of rehabilitation.
"We are now able to meet a very critical regional need. Keenan House for women will support up to 17 women in early recovery, including services for pregnant and postpartum women," said Brien Center CEO Christine Macbeth.
The center serves as a complement to Keenan House on Bradford Street that had served both men and women until last year. The new center features not only 17 beds but also a nursery for children. It is staffed by clinicians and councilors and focused on building the network of support for women to rebuild their lives.
"Women are encouraged to achieve goals that were at one time insurmountable -- finding rewarding work, pursuing education, and reconnecting with family members," said Megan Wroldson, who heads the program at the newly opened Seymour Street location.
The house is just the latest effort in combating an opioid crisis that is widespread throughout the Berkshires, the state, and the nation. Locally, however, there has been a significant shortage of beds and wait times to get into the 24-bed Keenan House were four to six months -- a wait during the most vulnerable time of someone's addiction.
Back in 2014, the Brien Center had provided testimony that the state should be investing in more beds. In 2016, Berkshire Health Systems opened 30 beds for a crisis stabilization unit. In February 2016, the state issued a request for even more residential recovery homes. The Brien Center had a plan to open one specifically for women and developed a plan to respond to that request.
"While we had a plan, we didn't have a physical location for it. We reached out to Berkshire Health Systems and said, 'we've been talking a lot about this, this is what we want to do, can you help us out?'" Macbeth said.
"Immediately they said, 'we have a couple sites that could be helpful for you to use.' We checked out both of those sites and we wanted sites that were located near the hospital that were on bus routes, convenient to local AA and NA meetings, and ultimately decided on this site here."
That spring, the center was told by the state Department of Public Health that it was "fundable but not funded." Should funding become available, the Brien Center would be given the OK to proceed. So, the Brien Center leaned on its state delegation. State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli was cited as particularly being aggressive in looking for the program to be funded.
Last February, the Brien Center got the approval to proceed with renovations. Berkshire Health Systems began renovating the building and the Brien Center loaded up on supplies and worked toward getting the staffing.
"We opened in October with nine female residents who moved from the now Keenan House for Men, to here. As of today, we have 16 women in the home," Macbeth said.
That collaboration of care from Berkshire Health Systems to the Brien Center hadn't always been there, according to Brien Center's Medical Director Dr. Jennifer Michaels. She said there was no coordinated effort some 20 years ago to treat both mental health and substance abuse -- each program was administered by separate organizations.
But Dr. Alex Sabo and Ray Brien started to break those silos. The two organizations teamed up to provide care for all needs.
"Once we integrated ... people got holistic care. You could get your depression treated in an evidence-based way and addiction treated under one roof," Michael said. "That sounds obvious. But 20 years ago that did not exist."
Michaels said that was the first step. The response to substance addiction took another step when those in the medical and mental fields started to embrace the use of methadone and Suboxone to help tackle an addiction, even as the public opposed their use. Narcan started to be rolled out to reverse overdose deaths.
"Sadly last year, we are in the middle of the fentanyl epidemic, 80 percent of the people who overdosed in our state tested positive for fentanyl. At the same time, our state realized a 10 percent reduction in overdoses. I think it has to do with the collaboration, not just here but in other areas, and the recognition that medications work, and if we widely distribute Narcan, people don't die from overdoses the way they otherwise would," Michael said.
"When women are ready for recovery, we need to be ready to help. Our program provides stability during the vulnerable period of early recovery. That stability is grounded in the daily structure and support found in the groups that meet at least twice a day," Wroldson said.
Wroldson said the new Keenan House creates a community to help women heal together. The house provides structure, group discussion to talk about relapse prevention and parents and more, and those in the program are encouraged to find support in the community through 12 step programs or various types of therapy. And all of those in the program have access to the full menu of services at the Brien Center, including medicine.
Overall, those in the program create a sober network to help turn their life around.
The opening of the new site was well received by the community. Those attending the open house and touring the facility included numerous representatives from various local service agencies and groups, Pignatelli, state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, state Sen. Adam Hinds, Mayor Linda Tyer, North Adams Mayor Thomas Bernard, and former North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright. The last two made it known that they appreciate the Brien Center's latest push to open another recovery center in North Adams.