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When it comes to treating drug addiction, diversity and accessibility is lacking

Some members of South Florida community make coordinated effort to change access
Posted at 3:31 PM, Oct 07, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-08 09:29:51-04

BOYNTON BEACH, Fla. — South Florida is known for its many drug rehab facilities.

According to a study in American Psychologist, 63% of men in rehabilitation are white and 78% of women are white.

But there is a push in South Florida to not only address drug use, but also the lack of diversity and accessibility when it comes to getting treatment.

For Kevin Choi, the CEO and founder of the Harm Reduction Center in Boynton Beach, the pathway to change is a long, dark one.

"My parents just, they stopped recognizing their kid, you know, and I would, like, stop recognizing myself, you know," he said. "I had burned pretty much every single bridge that I could."

Choi's story of opioid addiction is far too common these days.

Kevin Choi, founder of Harm Reduction Center
Kevin Choi, founder of the Harm Reduction Center in Boynton Beach, came to South Florida to battle his drug addiction.

"I got injured playing football, broke my elbow, got some prescription painkillers, and it just kind of stayed with me," he said. "I grew up in a very traditional Korean home. You know, this kind of stuff doesn't exist in our realm of family. I think for them, it was like, you know, 'We raised you in church. We raised you in a really good school system.'"

A cry for help and a Google search landed the California native in Florida.

"Peak of drug use to, like, the pit of drug use took about seven years," he said.

What happened next would change his future even more. He said when he went into treatment, it became abundantly clear that he was alone.

"Nobody looked like me. That was another barrier that I didn't think about, you know," Choi said. "It was like, here's a Korean American kid in Boynton Beach, Florida, you know, in rehab with faces that don't look like him, with people that may not understand my family structure, may not understand my culture."

That experience put Choi on the map many years later. He's now the founder of the Harm Reduction Center in Boynton Beach.

"There are other communities and pockets of people that have the same type of experiences and same barriers that I had," he said. "It may not be the fact they're Asian Americans. It could be that, you know, they're Haitian Americans."

Choi now has a drive and focus to provide accessibility for all, to make sure those barriers are at last diminished. He just did a microscopic study of his facility.

"Our commercial basis, I would say less than 20% seeking help are minorities," he explained.

The Rev. Rae Whitley, an assistant pastor for Healing Hands Ministry and an organizer for Faith in Florida, called it "a big problem."

Part of the solution is getting leaders in the community actively involved, especially those who really understand the people who live here.

"Using our churches as their safe space that they can come to and having conversations like these," he explained, are important steps.

Whitely addresses what he calls a stigma from both the pulpit and in the neighborhoods. He's working on getting people into treatment.

Rev. Rae Whitley speaks to Tory Dunnan
The Rev. Rae Whitley, an assistant pastor for Healing Hands Ministry and an organizer for Faith in Florida, speaks to WPTV's Tory Dunnan.

"It's been difficult because you have a lot of barriers that's stopping minorities from actually accessing treatment," he said. "One, it's the cost. Two, it's the stigma that is attached to what's happening now. … We really have to talk about accessibility to mental health and drug addiction."

That accessibility and discussion is something the T. Leroy Jefferson Medical Society is focused on through prevention, education and knowledge through an opioid prevention series. They're taking part in conversations with medical providers and heavily involved in community outreach. The group has also created a website and tool kit for physicians.

"There's a stigma that exists that sometimes we have to breech somehow when it comes to people of color, because sometimes you don't want to admit there is a problem," Laurel Dalton, executive director of the T. Leroy Jefferson Medical Society, said. "Sometimes we take it upon ourselves and we think we can get through things and manage ourselves. We want to get the message out to not only physicians, but also the community, that it's OK to seek treatment, it's OK to be vulnerable and say, 'Hey, I have an issue and I need help.'"

Laurel Dalton, executive director of T. Leroy Jefferson Medical Society
Laurel Dalton is the executive director of the T. Leroy Jefferson Medical Society.

Dr. Tiffany McCalla, an emergent physician who works with the T. Leroy Jefferson Medical Society, believes it needs to be addressed on the doctor front as well.

"I went to medical school a few years ago," she said. "We talked nothing about addiction."

McCalla said attitudes are changing.

"These days, we think of addiction as a disease," she explained. "Addiction wasn't always thought of as a disease. It's a will power. You grab yourself up by the boot straps. Be better. We understand there is a lot more that goes into it. We understand there is neurochemistry, familial predisposition. Part of the problem is that if you don't truly understand that and you don't truly believe that, then you have a hard time living that and transferring that kind of information to your patients."

Now, there is a newfound focus on solutions.

Dr. Tiffany McCalla discusses disparity in drug addiction treatment
"I went to medical school a few years ago," Dr. Tiffany McCalla says. "We talked nothing about addiction."

"I think, really, honestly, because of the segments of populations it affected, it wasn't talked about as much and didn't matter, right?" McCalla said. "Once opioid problems became a problem for everybody, for the general population, and, honestly, for white suburban America, it became a bigger issue," McCalla said. "Now it's a war on drugs."

Choi agreed.

"We've done what we need to do to gain access to therapists, doctors that speak both languages, and so that's what we need to do as administrators," he said. "Yeah, I mean, those things are major barriers that can be overcome but are not currently fully being overcome."