By Rachel Baldauf
On a warm Wednesday afternoon, an unassuming white van parked in front of the Robeson County Department of Social Services. Inside, encouraging messages were scribbled on a whiteboard: “You are loved,” “We support you,” “Welcome to recovery dude!”
Since August, the ATLAS (Addiction Treatment: Linking Access & Services) mobile clinic has served patients every Wednesday outside the social services office in Lumberton. Staff provide addiction treatment medications and help connect patients to community resources like housing assistance and therapy.
“Whatever the need is, we also try to meet it,” said LaTonya Ridges, a social worker at the clinic. “We want to change lives.”
The clinic was started by the UNC School of Medicine with funding from the Duke Energy Foundation and Vital Strategies, a public health nonprofit. Dr. Robyn Jordan, director of the UNC School of Medicine’s Addiction Medicine Program, spearheaded the effort.
Jordan wanted to put the clinic in Robeson County because of the lack of treatment options available in the area. The county lacks a sufficient number of inpatient beds for people dealing with substance misuse, and few medical providers specialize in treating patients struggling with addiction. Many pharmacies in the area won’t dispense Suboxone, a common medication used to treat opioid use disorder, Jordan said.
“In a lot of rural areas, it’s difficult for people to get access to care and for people to be able to afford care,” Jordan said.
Access to addiction treatment is vital in Robeson County, where the rate of opioid overdose deaths per 100,000 people was nearly double the statewide rate from 2017 to 2021. The number of overdose deaths in Robeson County has more than tripled since 2018, and 103 people died last year, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
More and more people are visiting the ATLAS clinic since it opened in August. At the start, about 10 patients showed up each week, Ridges said. On Oct. 11, the clinic saw 19 patients. Though the clinic usually closes at 2:30 p.m., Ridges said it stayed open until 4 p.m. to make sure every patient who came received treatment.
Though many patients come to the clinic after being referred by a medical professional, Ridges said a growing number of patients are finding out about the clinic by word of mouth.
“It seems like it’s growing each week,” Ridges said. “We’re excited.”
In September, North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein visited the clinic and said he hoped it would inspire other areas of the state to adopt similar solutions.
“This clinic is a great example of what happens when people apply their creativity to find the best solutions for their communities,” he said in a statement.
Grayson Bowen, a peer support specialist who works at the clinic, said ATLAS staff have worked hard to create a welcoming environment for patients. As someone who has struggled with addiction and mental illness in the past, Bowen helps patients develop a plan for recovery.
“I’m able to go to a patient and be like, ‘I’m in recovery. I know what it’s like,’” Bowen said.
For many seeking addiction treatment, he said, stigma is a major barrier. “I think a lot of people see it as a moral failing. We don’t just sign up one day to be addicted to substances.”
ATLAS takes a unique approach, Bowen said. Patients are encouraged to bring their children with them to the clinic. Behind the check-in table sits a large chalkboard with childrens’ drawings. In October, the door of the van was decorated with a cartoon witch for Halloween.
As the clinic got ready to treat patients last week, the ATLAS staff gathered in a circle as Bowen led the group in a breathing exercise. At the end, the staff clapped and cheered.
Bowen said he’s excited each week to work at the clinic. “A lot of the patients get really excited to be here,” he said. “It’s a sense of belonging.”