Looking to Help Natives Regain Control in NM, Detox Center to Open in Gallup

An independently operated, medically monitored detox clinic opening in Gallup, New Mexico, will be the only one of its kind in a 100-mile radius.
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An independently operated, medically monitored detox clinic opening in Gallup, New Mexico, by the end of the year will be the only one of its kind in a 100-mile radius.

The 13-bed clinic, called Four Corners Detox Recovery, will help address issues of alcohol and substance abuse in a town bordering the 27,000-square-mile Navajo Nation. Navajo psychiatrist Dr. Richard Laughter, founder of the clinic, expects the new program to incorporate traditional healing practices with essential medical assistance.

In places like Gallup and the surrounding McKinley County, where 75 percent of the population is Native and public intoxication has become part of the culture, medical assistance in detoxification often is overlooked, Laughter said.

“A lot is lacking in Gallup,” he said. “A lot of these people are binge drinkers. They go in cycles of days, weeks or months, living on the streets. When they get picked up, they go to detox for the night and get released before they’re ready.”

What’s missing is medical help, Laughter said. Patients at Four Corners Detox Recovery will check in for up to a week and receive medically monitored assistance to avoid withdrawal symptoms and address the underlying causes of substance abuse.

 Very few people can successfully detox without medical help, Laughter said. Without that available, the behavioral health system in McKinley County ends up operating like a revolving door – with individuals discharged before they’re fully sober.

Individuals arrested for public intoxication or picked up from the streets are transported to jail or the hospital – both of which fall short in treating long-term or underlying problems, Laughter said. At the local Indian Health Service hospital, Gallup Indian Medical Center, as much as 40 percent of business any given day comes from patients needing detoxification.

Laughter hopes to accept referrals from the medical center by the end of the year. His clinic will be staffed 24 hours per day with nurses and technicians trained to help patients get physically and mentally prepared to kick substance abuse.

“Patients will stay for three to seven days, long enough to get to zero,” Laughter said. “Once we get them detoxed, they will be more likely to be thinking clearly, more willing to seek additional treatment.”

Detoxing is sometimes the first of many steps toward recovery, said Haley Rochelle, director of Four Corners Detox Recovery. Substance abuse often co-occurs with mental health issues, homelessness or other problems.

“These individuals drink for a reason, and that issue is not addressed,” Rochelle said. “Our goal is to make change, to properly detox people, to have a medical staff to help these individuals.”

Although the clinic will serve anyone, the majority of patients will be Native. According to a 2011 report on McKinley County conducted by the New Mexico Human Services Department, Natives have the highest prevalence of binge and heavy drinking.

Natives also make up the vast majority of alcohol-related deaths, including deaths from injury, motor vehicle crashes and chronic disease. During a four-year period ending in 2009, the county reported 340 alcohol-related deaths; 302 of those were Native.

“Most of those drinking are Native American,” Laughter said. “It’s genetics, historical trauma, prohibition on the reservation. It’s the result of being placed on reservations and not having the necessities to succeed. You have unemployment and financial problems that lead to physical, sexual and emotional abuse, and more drinking. Then the next generation grows up in the same environment. It’s very rare not to be touched by it.”

Laughter, a recovering alcoholic with 20 years of sobriety, hopes to eventually develop a complete healing program, which will include sweat lodges, talking circles and services from a traditional medicine man.

The detox clinic is one of three programs that will operate under the umbrella of Native American Behavioral Health Services. Laughter is already operating an outpatient psychiatry clinic, and he wants to add a methadone clinic by early 2015.