Geographically isolated and tightly knit, Charlestown is comprised of some of the wealthiest and poorest residents in the city of Boston. Historically a working-class, Irish-Catholic community, Charlestown’s population has become more ethnically and racially diverse in the last 20 years. Startling substance abuse statistics and their consequences ultimately brought this diverse community together around the common goal of reducing substance abuse and building a healthier community.

Confronting substance abuse
Charlestown approached the substance abuse problem by demonstrating how everyone in the community was affected and how individual and group efforts – no matter how small – would make a difference. Charlestown built upon its existing strengths, such as being a self-sufficient community that “took care of its own.”  The Charlestown Substance Abuse Coalition, founded in 2004, reached out to individuals and families affected by substance abuse, and built the capacity of the community to address its own health challenges.  For example, community residents were trained to go into the public schools and teach substance abuse prevention curricula to students. Most recently, a community health worker model has been utilized to prevent and reduce opiate overdoses. A new Charlestown Drug Court, a specialized court session which assists individuals on probation who suffer with chronic substance abuse, is underway. These individuals voluntarily participate in court-stipulated drug treatment as an alternative to prison. The program follows a successful drug court model in Chelsea, where the sentence for these individuals includes intensive court supervision, mandatory drug testing, substance-abuse treatment, and other social services as an alternative to adjudication or incarceration. A U.S. Department of Justice drug court study found that, when appropriately implemented, drug courts can reduce recidivism, decrease the chances of future drug use, and promote positive cost-saving outcomes.

Ultimately, Charlestown has been successful in creating substance abuse treatment resources, bolstering police engagement, and building a stronger recovery community, leading to increased treatment admissions, fewer overdoses, and a decreased drug abuse mortality rate.

CCHI conducted a community health assessment in Charlestown during 2012 to 2013. Data was collected from the U.S. Census, MA Department of Education, Boston Public Health Commission, MA Department of Public Health, local police departments and community-based organizations.  An Quality of Life survey was distributed at a public forum and 545 completed surveys were collected. This was supplemented by 17 focus groups of Charlestown residents.

By a significant margin Charlestown identified substance abuse and the effects it has on quality of life including perceptions of violence and public safety as their top issue. Charlestown decided to continue its substance abuse efforts in the neighborhood, added cancer prevention/healthy living, access to care with an emphasis on helping families with autistic youth and educational opportunities for all residents.

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