Austin musicians seeking substance abuse help doubles; foundation seeks support

Karma Stewart talks with KXAN reporter Gigi Barnett on Wednesday in Austin. (KXAN photo)
Karma Stewart talks with KXAN reporter Gigi Barnett on Wednesday in Austin. (KXAN photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Karma Stewart grew up singing gospel music in church. She watched artists on BET, not admiring their fame or fortune, but their talent.

Soon, she was living out her dream, playing in bars, surrounded by alcohol and late nights. She thought she couldn’t be creative without drinking.

“As long as my eyes were open, I was drinking,” Stewart said.

But, after realizing she was addicted and becoming sober within the last year, she realizes now that that isn’t true.

“Finding out that I was an alcoholic was the best and the worst thing that I ever experienced in my life,” Stewart said. “I found out when I woke up one morning and I had really bad tremors and the shakes. I knew something wasn’t right. I knew something was wrong. Come to find out, that was my addiction taking over.”

Stewart, who had been living in Los Angeles, moved back home to Austin where she received support from the SIMS Foundation, a local organization that provides mental health and addiction recovery to Austin musicians, music industry professionals and their families.

The total number of clients the SIMS Foundation provided substance abuse services to has more than doubled over the last year. In 2016, they served 38 people with substance abuse issues compared to last year when they served 80 clients. Heather Alden, the organization’s executive director, said they serve about 600 musicians for substance abuse and mental health annually, with increase in numbers over the last five years.

“We’ve seen the growth in clients seeking services for opioid use doubled in the last year,” Alden said. “It’s our estimation that the opioid — the national opioid epidemic is at our doorstep and we really need to act now before it takes over every corner of our community.”

But the additional outreach to the community comes with a cost, and the SIMS Foundation says it’ll need community support to keep up with the need for services, especially after losing about $150,000 in funding.

“The increase in the number of clients we had last year cost us $200,000 and we are trying to make up for that huge increase right when we’ve lost a funder that specifically gave to substance use recovery,” Alden said.

She said one client can cost up to $10,000 to serve as they quickly connect them with the mental health and recovery resources they need.

“The mayor and the city council and our Austin community see musicians as a vital economic resource of the city so we must protect and defend that resource,” Alden said.

The SIMS Foundation sent a memo to Mayor Steve Adler, telling him about two Austin musicians who died from accidental drug overdose earlier this year. The foundation outlined the growing need for services and a community-based response.

“The news that people in Austin are not immune to the national opioid crisis comes as sad news but no surprise,” said Jason Stanford, spokesman for Adler. “The Mayor has met with the SIMS Foundation recently to better understand the issue and how we can scale up their efforts.”

Alden said everyone’s journey to recovery is different. At SIMS, they focus on community-based treatments versus a 30-day rehab program.

“It’s a difficult disease to solve,” Alden said. “We have clients that have gone through rehab 17 times and this 18th time stuck for whatever reason.”

For Stewart, it wasn’t until she was sitting in her backyard crying as she looked at empty bottles all around her that she realized she needed help. She looked at her reflection in her phone and didn’t recognize herself anymore and nothing made sense.

She reached out to her family and mother, who connected her with SIMS and got her the help she needed to turn her life around.

“If it hadn’t have been for her and if it hadn’t have been for my support system, the people that I had wronged throughout this process of my addiction, I wouldn’t be here today,” she said.

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