Even though drug addiction kills an alarming average of 24 Garland County residents a year (CDC, 2019), the stigma society continues to place on those struggling with this disease keeps many from seeking help. Furthermore, the Hot Springs Police Department (HSPD) was only able to address the criminal aspect of the opioid epidemic until 2020 when the department sought after and was granted funds for a program to try to get to the core of the problem and provide resources to assist addicts and their families. At the heart of the new HSPD program is a peer recovery specialist, Sean Willits, whose empathy for those in their darkest days is drawn from his own struggles of overcoming his decade-long addition that nearly took his life 14 times.
Willits, 33, was hired for the peer recovery specialist position by the HSPD in May 2021 with funds from a Comprehensive Opioid Abuse Grant through the Arkansas Substance Abuse Certification Board and the Arkansas State Drug Director. Willits’ services to the Hot Springs community include advocating for treatment, developing educational programs for the community and police department staff, providing support for victims and family members, supporting the opioid criminal investigator, working with stakeholders in building relationships and resources for victims and working with the state drug director’s office to implement new ideas and resources. Of course, another key function for Willits is to motivate through hope and inspiration. Although Willits has a quiet demeanor and modest nature, his personal story caught the attention of local and state media soon after he joined the HSPD. This exposure undoubtedly provided a positive example for many to follow while also highlighting the support services now available through the new HSPD program.
Willits joined the Army out of high school and served for two years, 21 weeks and three days. In a June 9, 2021, interview in Little Rock on The Recovery Clinic – a show dedicated to topics surrounding addiction and recovery – he explained that although he hated that the Army made all of his decisions for him, the structure was actually helpful for him and things quickly unraveled after his time in the armed services ended. He turned to drugs to cope, and over the next 11 years, Willis went deeper and deeper into addiction. He experienced seven failed attempts at various treatment centers and 14 overdoses, with Narcan bringing him back time and again on his frequent trips to the emergency room. Willits finally hit bottom and gave treatment another try, this time at Quapaw House, now Harbor House, on Mountain Pine Road in Hot Springs. “I just stayed and started my life over,” Willits told the Hot Springs Sentinel Record in a front-page feature story on June 20, 2021, about his role in the HSPD’s new program. His last, successful attempt at treatment was different because the counselors were in recovery themselves, and when he got out of treatment, he followed through with their suggestions.
He has been clean and sober since May 7, 2018. He returned to the Quapaw House in 2019, this time as an employee to help others recover. He started at the lowest position working nights, but advanced his way up to be promoted to peer recovery specialist. He completed the core training for peer recovery specialists through the state and earned the needed 500 hours of experience to be certified before Quapaw House closed. He went on to became a Certified Instructional Trainer (CIT), an title earned by those with expertise in developing, designing and delivering safety, health and environmental training.
“I now work with the Hot Springs Police Department, and Police Chief Chris Chapmond and the officers I’ve worked with have all been the same,” Willits explained on The Recovery Clinic. “They all seem to understand and care, so it’s really exciting that they’re willing to take this other approach.” Chief Chapmond said that one of the reasons he is such a proponent of this program is “because each of us, including myself, have personal stories regarding what addiction does to the family and friends that we all have. My mother died of an overdose, and I have seen the effects on my own life and everyone she touched. What we are doing is new and important. Addiction touches everyone in one form or another.” Chapmond said he is proud of his department for the effort and work being put into this program, which he said is offering a dramatically different approach to these issues than is traditionally done in law enforcement.
Although the grant that funds Willits’ position focuses on overdoses and trying to get those suffering from addiction into recovery, he also consoles and assists family members of fatal overdoses. For those who survive, he is able to speak candidly to them. “I’m obviously not judgmental of them. I’ve actually been through what they just went through, numerous times. I know exactly how they’re feeling and the exact emotions they’re going through,” he said. Granted, not all are open or ready for talk of recovery. “But if I can talk to four people and one of them says, ‘Yeah, help me,’ then it’s worth it,” he said. He has also formed a collaboration with the peer recovery specialist at the treatment program at the Garland County Detention Center. A part of the Center’s program is to provide inmates with a plan for when they are released, and Willits has stepped in to make sure they have the help they need to carry out those plans. He described to the newspaper a recent trip to the jail in which he met with three inmates who were soon to be released. “We talked about what their plans are and what I’ll be able to do to help them achieve the goals they have,” he said. A part of their plans are intensive outpatient programs. “If they’re worried they don’t have a ride, I’ll leave, pick them up and take them to their outpatient group. I will help them get to the resources they need for recovery.”
Beyond those who have overdosed or been incarcerated, Willits has actually reached out into the community to provide anyone suffering from a substance abuse disorder with resources and help to get them into recovery. A hurdle to this process can be breaking the stigma of embarrassment, which Willits said is one main priorities of the grant. “They don’t want to tell anyone. They don’t want to reach out for help because they’re worried about what society is going to think about them, and that causes people to just stay in what they are doing; that contributes to the overdose deaths,” he said. To address the stigma priority, Willits organized a kickball game between the police department and members of the recovery community. Willits said when he emailed the police department to gauge interest in the kickball event, Chief Chapmond was among the first to respond: “I’m in! Let me know when we’re going to do it.” Due to a spike in COVID cases, the game had to be postponed, but Willits has begun tackling the stigma issue by volunteering with fellow HSPD employees and officers to represent the police department at various community outreach events. He has also built a strong following of more than 700 “friends” on his “Sean Prss Willits” Facebook page, from which he shares inspirational links, job opportunities and information about upcoming events, such as the Narcan training classes he began offering to the community in August.
Another important element of the program is the investigation of overdoses, with a new dedicated position – Opioid Investigator – being filled by Jjesus Anaya. Anaya works to identify where overdose victims are acquiring their narcotics, which is another aspect of the local opioid epidemic that has never really been able to be addressed. Resources only previously allowed for overdose deaths to be responded to as medical calls, with the criminal aspect only seldom being looked into.
Along with overdose response and investigation and reducing the stigma associated with persons facing substance abuse disorders, the HSPD program’s third goal involves law enforcement capacity building and data collection. Use of local data related to the city’s plight with substance abuse will inform, influence and advocate for prevention, treatment and recovery services. Data will also help focus resources and identify gaps within the system. Year-over-year data will be compared to track trends, including investigations, arrests, recovery placements, court interventions and educational programs.
The continuation of the program will be determined by the successes and value shown through proper data collection and delivery of messaging regarding the growing epidemic and the impact on the Hot Springs community. The HSDP’s goal is to build the positions and efforts into their current budget structure. Sustaining the program from an investigative and community-based project will also be implemented into the department’s long-term strategic plan.