How many of us have lost a loved one to addiction? The prevalence of drug overdoses, almost always unintentional, is a continuing tragedy in the Roaring Fork Valley. According to recent data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020 saw a 42.4% increase in drug-related overdose deaths in Colorado compared to 2019. In all, that’s 1,478 preventable deaths in Colorado in 2020.
Maggie Seldeen, founding director of High Rockies Harm Reduction (HRHR), knows firsthand the painful challenges wrought by addiction. Seldeen, who was raised in Carbondale, lost her mother to a heroin overdose at the age of 15.
“When I was in middle school, even elementary school and high school, I had a lot of mental health issues and needs and I was basically kind of written off by the schools and the courts and places like YouthZone.”
Seldeen experienced feeling “criminalized” as a child, born into the world as a “bad seed” and thus caught in a cycle of violence and addiction. The height of her struggles with addiction occurred during her middle school years, when her mother was busted for running drugs and Seldeen was accused of being complicit.
Living on and off the streets until the age of 20, Seldeen discovered the “drug safety” approach while volunteering with recovery services in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her understanding of substance use disorder treatment transformed with this introduction to “harm reduction,” preventing unnecessary and unintended deaths through peer-support services for mental wellness.
Returning to the Roaring Fork Valley in 2015, “I realized this is where I want to be and where I want to make a difference. Even though I feel short-changed, I care about these communities. Carbondale specifically made me who I am and I am so proud of that.”
Seldeen went on to acquire a bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology with an emphasis in public health and substance abuse and founded HRHR to address some of the shortcomings that she personally experienced. Unlike other local services, sobriety is not a requirement for receiving support. Rather, the focus is on “getting better, one step at a time,” to achieve “the best quality of life possible.”
HRHR evolved out of Seldeen’s work with Mind Springs Health as a peer recovery coach. Her focus now is on expanding the mobile peer workforce, especially by offering work to people that progress through the program. “All you need is a high school diploma [or GED] and sustained time in recovery,” Seldeen informed The Sopris Sun. These peer positions will eventually be bolstered through workshops, seminars and credentials provided at a fixed site.
Ideally, Seldeen wants that fixed site to be situated in Carbondale because of its centralized location relative to HRHR’s service area, stretching from Aspen to Parachute, up the Crystal Valley for communities like Marble and Redstone — isolated from the rest of their counties — and even over the pass to Somerset and Paonia. Eventually, the Eagle Valley up to Vail may be included. Seldeen recognizes similar dynamics among all of these towns, each affected by resort culture and with a gap in treatment for people with fewer economic resources.
For example, in-patient treatment is difficult to access for many people because of enrollment costs and requiring time away from work. HRHR will serve more like a safety net, not fully “rehab,” but rather something in-between.
After launching in March, the nonprofit garnered attention for novel strategies like training people to administer Narcan, a life-saving drug that can reverse an opioid overdose, and Fentanyl test strips, used to verify the purity of unregulated drugs. Responding to letters to the editor raising doubts, Seldeen explains that one term she saw often is “disaster.” She responds, “it’s already a disaster” with people dying unnecessarily in our communities. “These are accidental deaths, we don’t need to lose more young people when resources exist.”
As local populations grow, she points out, so will the prevalence of these issues. “We all want to keep our parks and communities safe.”
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of HRHR’s programming is a proposed syringe exchange. Syringe exchanges involve safe disposal of used syringes with biohazard containers. According to Seldeen, this is a small part of HRHR, providing a service that doesn’t exist in this community and, studies suggest, doesn’t enable use. Rather, HRHR hopes to catch people that may otherwise be unreachable, providing an opportunity for intervention while protecting users against infection.
Already, grants have been received from the Colorado Health Foundation to get staff going. HRHR is now focused on bringing multicultural volunteers and employees into the fold. The agency will also help people to acquire GEDs.
You can learn more by searching for “High Rockies Harm Reduction” on social media, visiting highrockiesharmreduction.com, or by tuning in for “Chemical World” on KDNK on the second Monday of every month at 4:30 p.m. HRHR will also host a fundraising event at Miner’s Park on June 26, at 4 p.m.