Judy Cushing: Providing a Life Line

written by Justin Fields

s the CEO of Lines for Life, Judy Cushing represents a diverse group of community partners with the common goals of preventing substance abuse and suicide. Her 30 years of experience began in Medford, Oregon in the 1970s when Southern Oregon was a hotbed of illegal activity. Cushing became appalled when LSD stickers appeared at the grade school her children attended. Having had no previous experience with illegal drugs, the event compelled her to learn as much as possible about drug abuse prevention, and devote her entire career to the cause.

In 1993 Cushing founded the statewide nonprofit, Oregon Partnership, which would become Lines for Life, and she has served as the CEO for the past 15 years. She manages a staff of 30 in Portland, and her leadership and service in the field of substance abuse prevention and public policy advocacy at the state and national levels has been widely recognized. Her numerous awards and accomplishments include being appointed by President Bush to serve on the President’s Advisory Commission on Drug-Free Communities. She also serves as an advisor to numerous national, state, and community organizations.

What are the predominate problems that the partnership deals with specifically in Oregon, and are there unique challenges that are more prevalent here than in other regions? 

Because we run 24-hour crisis lines on all drug issues and mental health issues, we see emerging problems even before the data reflects that a problem exists. The number one reason for calls on our crisis line would be alcohol and prescription drugs. They exceed cocaine, they exceed meth, they exceed inhalants. They exceed heroin at this point. Five years ago, it would have been alcohol and methamphetamines. The number one reason for calls on our suicide lines and our mental health lines are for issues of suicide and very, very severe depression. Oregon and the Northwest have a very high rate of suicide. We have actually a very high rate of drug and alcohol use among our youth and among our citizenry. I can tell you the suicide rates have to do with the things that are affecting our whole country, but they affected Oregon in more dramatic ways around the economic recession and the war. We operate a military helpline and we are a backup center for the national VA crisis line. The war has had a profound impact on those who served, and some who didn’t serve but were closely connected to it.

How has the proliferation of prescription drug abuse changed the dynamics of dealing with substance abuse? 

There’s a HUGE amount of work that has yet to be done and urgently needs to be done on the prescription drug issue. It centers largely on the fact that when people are prescribed medicines they feel like it’s an endorsement to take them, because it’s medicine. And if prescription medicines are advertised in the media then they must be ok. People are getting their hands on prescription medicines that aren’t legally prescribed. They either get them from another person’s medicine cabinet or someone gave it to them. There are also a small number of doctors who get paid for writing those prescriptions. The biggest problem is that patients are misleading their physicians to get these medications. And there are some patients that don’t take the medications as prescribed, instead taking a larger than normal dose. Or, they end up with a surplus that they can take and very easily become addicted to. With the oxycodone and hydrocodone drugs it can happen very quickly with people who are predisposed to that kind of addiction, and they don’t even know it’s happening. Our brains are wired differently. Some people have more of a predisposition than others.

How does Lines for Life reach out to those who are struggling and may be looking out for a place to turn for help?

Lines for Life is a confidential, anonymous place for people to turn 24 hours a day to get help. They may be concerned they’ve become addicted to a prescription drug or another drug. Or a family member is concerned about another family member. A supervisor in a work setting is concerned about their supervisor or someone under them. We provide counseling and guidance and help people get to where they can get help. But most importantly, it’s that first call—someone being brave enough to pick up the phone and say, “I think I have a problem,” or, “I think my son or daughter has a problem and I don’t know what to do or where to turn.” And it doesn’t matter how long it takes. It can be a ten-minute phone call or an hour-long phone call. Our counselors are there for them and will be there. We do follow up calls with callers who agree to have a call back to make sure that their plan is progressing, etc.

Why is anonymity so important?

Anonymity is extremely important for people who are considering taking their own lives, or who have found themselves in a place that they never thought they would find themselves in terms of addiction. People feel embarrassed, ashamed, alone. In the case of suicide they feel hopeless. They feel as though they are of no use to anyone, including their own families. And then there is a voice on the other end of the line that is not there to judge them, they don’t even know them. They just know that they’re hurting, that they’re reaching out for help. That anonymity says, I don’t know who you are, you don’t know who I am, but I’m here to help you. It saves lives. We save lives every day, and I mean that literally.

Has bullying become a major contributing factor to teen suicide in Oregon?

It has. We have a youth line here, and a surprising number of young people reach out, but they won’t use the term bullying. Often the callers talk about what others say about their appearance, or it’s often the way they talk, they walk, they act. It’s a terrible, insidious way to make young people feel that they aren’t worthwhile remaining on the earth. All that they can think of is that it’s their own fault—the callers put it on themselves. It’s their problem. They did it. All of those things are things that kids find to pick on each other about. So we provide a confidential place for teens to call to talk about what they’re experiencing, and sometimes we have to work for a while to get to it. This morning a young person called here, and was calling about something else altogether. That same individual texted us this afternoon and really got to the heart of the problem of how they were being bullied.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a crisis that is increasing nationwide. What are the biggest challenges facing returning veterans, and what is being done in terms of reaching out to veterans dealing with the pressures of readjusting to civilian life?

PTSD is real. It’s a very, very serious and real problem. And I think for many veterans, at one point they were turned away for exhibiting the symptoms of PTSD. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in some very different and challenging issues for active duty soldiers and veterans. PTSD is one of those, and traumatic brain injury is another. Because these injuries are not visible, it is difficult for most to see what these veterans have suffered. Oregon had over 3,000 soldiers deployed, mostly from the National Guard. They are men and women who signed up to be citizen soldiers, to help their communities with such issues as disaster relief. Some did sign up to go to war, but when they got there, a lot of them ended up in the very heart of the battle. When these Oregon National Guard soldiers came back, they didn’t receive the same, nor qualified for the same services as active duty personnel. Our National Guard soldiers didn’t have the support mechanism, particularly in the beginning.

Oregon National Guard really ramped up their Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program, which is a model in the country. But with so many veterans living in rural parts of Oregon, it is difficult to provide them services. From 2008 to 2010, we had a perfect storm. When the deployment levels were at their very highest, our soldiers were coming back to severe economic distress. Some were returning to no job, because their job had gone away. They were returning to financial difficulties, such as losing a home. Some were under relationship stress. You put all those things together and combine them with the trauma of war and it’s just too much. And I think it’s going to be important that our country, and certainly our citizenry, learn more about what soldiers experienced and what they will be dealing with for probably a large part of the remainder of their lives.

What would you say to any of our readers who may currently be struggling with substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, or are contemplating suicide?

Please don’t suffer alone. There are places to turn. There are people there to help, and all sorts of avenues of resources. No matter how hard it is or how bad it hurts, there’s help. And there are people who care, people who have been there, who have been to war, are battle buddies, understand what you are going through and are there to help you. Reach out for help. It’s really critical. There are so many things that can be done to help you.

Can you describe what it’s like to have such a meaningful job?

I have the best job in the entire world, second only to being a grandmother, and being a wife to the sweetest guy in the world for 47 years! I had the great benefit of marrying my high school sweetheart and best friend and supporter. So that is my most wonderful, God-given role there. I say I have the best job in the world because I work with an incredibly passionate, caring group of professionals, including our professional staff on the crisis lines, and all the others who participate in different ways. To be able to work with people who care so much about others, who give of themselves so freely, who dedicate their lives to this kind of work—not for the money but for the service—is just an incredible gift.


About The Author: Justin Fields