How Human Connection Guides Our Lives: An Interview with Serenity Lane CEO Pete Kerns
Former Eugene Police Chief Pete Kerns says his dad, Tom, was orphaned by alcoholism. That inspired Tom to become a doctor and co-found Serenity Lane.
Now Pete has taken the helm of Serenity Lane, and he’s determined to use his savvy about the connection between substance use and crime to make our community a better place.
We recently sat down with Pete, current CEO and president of Serenity Lane, to gain some insight into the intersections between drugs, addiction, mental health, and community.
After serving 36 years with the Eugene Police Department, including nine years as chief, Pete took over as CEO of Serenity Lane in 2019. In this role, he brings a deep connection to, and understanding of, the community Serenity Lane serves. Part of Pete’s vision includes modernizing Serenity Lane’s long-term strategic plan, with a focus on providing more access to addiction treatment services.
Pete understands how the issues of mental health, substance use, and society’s troubles are intertwined.
“What you see in law enforcement is that drug and alcohol use is substantially responsible for society’s problems,” Pete said. “Sheriffs and people who operate prisons will tell you that 80% or better of the people that are in prison or jail are in there because of mental health and substance use disorder conditions.”
Pete’s personal and professional history has given him a unique awareness of the needs of the Oregon community as well as the ways his experience can help guide Serenity Lane’s programming to meet those needs.
Pete’s roots in serving the Oregon community run deep. As mentioned earlier, he’s the son of Serenity Lane’s co-founder, Dr. Tom Kerns. Dr. Kerns, a family physician, founded Serenity Lane in 1973 as a private, non-profit organization for treating alcoholism and substance use issues.
“The reason why treating alcoholism was so important to our dad was because he watched his father die from alcoholism,” Pete said. His grandfather was a dentist in a small town, and Pete’s father, Tom, respected him a great deal. Tom could see, even as a little kid, that alcoholism had derailed his father’s life to some extent and ultimately led to his death.
“When [my dad] grew up and went to medical school, he eventually started a practice in Eugene,” Pete said. “He was interested in finding ways to treat alcoholism. The people like his dad were the people he wanted to treat. People who had families and homes and careers, and had an opportunity to contribute significantly to their family and to society.”
Tales From the Trenches
Pete also shared a story from his early years with the Eugene Police Department about how the alcohol use of one family member can have profound effects on many people.
“When I was a young patrol officer, I responded to a fatal car accident where the driver was a husband and father with a job and responsibilities and a good life ahead of him, a good life for his children ahead of them. He drove the wrong way over an overpass and killed an 18-year-old girl in high school who had a future ahead of her as well,” Pete said.
“It was a tragic loss for the girl’s family, and it was a tragic loss for the driver’s family as well. He had gone out drinking with his colleagues, had way too much to drink. He was probably suffering from alcoholism. That never needed to happen if the availability of drug and alcohol treatment were greater for someone like that.”
The Lack of Government Initiatives
Pete also discussed how many of the substance use and mental health issues faced by the Oregon community are due to a lack of government resources.
“We have fewer police per capita than any other state in the country,” he said. “We don’t have the capacity here to intervene. All the things that go into that, including public education and intervention, doesn’t occur to the extent here in Oregon that it does in other places.”
Government-funded mental health and substance use treatments, and everything that would go into a robust prevention program, would have positive impacts on the community, Pete said.
“You’ll find that in other communities, particularly on the East Coast, that they provide more care for their communities. As a result, crime rates are lower, and treatment for conditions such as substance use disorder are more vibrant.”
He cited communities in states such as New Jersey and Rhode Island where people who enter the criminal justice system with substance use disorder are given access to medication-assisted treatment (MAT) that allows them to regain control of their lives by holding down jobs and making a living without crime.
Serenity Lane has historically served the exact demographic that Pete’s grandfather represented: people who have families, homes, and careers, but whose lives have been derailed by alcoholism or substance use issues.
Pete watched his father form Serenity Lane around the commitment to serving the needs of the Oregon community. That commitment shaped the trajectory of Pete’s career of service. His experience illustrates how family and upbringing can have profound effects on how our lives unfold, in both positive and negative ways.
The environment in which a child is raised can have a tremendous impact on their social and behavioral development. Studies have shown that children who grow up in an environment where they are exposed to alcoholism are up to 4 times as likely to develop alcohol use disorder themselves later in life.
In 2019, 19.6% of adults in Oregon reportedly engaged in chronic drinking or binge drinking at least once within a 30-day period. This is a full percent higher than the national average of 18.6%. This means nearly 1 in 5 Oregon adults engage in excessive drinking on a regular basis. Taking that into account, it’s safe to infer that learned behavior accounts for a large number of cases of alcohol use disorder.
Stigma Can Be a Barrier to Treatment
There are many reasons why someone with a family and career may avoid seeking treatment, even when substance use issues begin to affect their life in negative ways. Some people may be hesitant to admit they have a problem because they see it as a personal failure. Others may view the stigma of addiction as too shameful to seek treatment.
Whatever the case may be, the efforts of people like Pete Kerns and organizations such as Serenity Lane are making great strides in destroying the stigma around addiction treatment, allowing people to get the help they need.
One of the main barriers preventing people with substance use issues from getting help is the perception that addiction forms due to a moral failing on the part of the individual. The medical community has been working under the general consensus for years that addiction issues are complex brain disorders with behavioral components, but many people in the general public view someone suffering from substance use as morally flawed.
There’s even a stigma surrounding addiction within the medical community. Some medical professionals in emergency settings may be ill-equipped to treat someone suffering from substance use or withdrawal if they haven’t received proper training and education. Understanding the realities of substance use is the first step toward destroying the stigma of addiction treatment within the community and potentially ending the cycle of addiction.
Updating Serenity Lane’s Programming to Address Modern Issues
Like most of the United States, Oregon is in the midst of battling the opioid epidemic. This crisis includes both the use of opioid pain medications as well as illicit opioid drugs such as heroin and non-pharmaceutical fentanyl. Oregon has one of the highest rates of prescription opioid misuse in the country.
On average, 5 Oregonians die every week from opioid overdose. Heroin use contributes to a significant number of overdose deaths, and illicit fentanyl-related deaths are increasing dramatically. Along with the high rate of overdose deaths, many more Oregonians develop opioid use disorder or dependency. In 2019, 174.4 out of every 1,000 people in Oregon were prescribed an opioid drug for one reason or another.
The legalization of marijuana, an increase in the availability of street drugs, and the ongoing opioid crisis have shifted the demographic of people who suffer from addiction. Pete shared another anecdote from his time with the Eugene Police Department to illustrate the complex struggles facing Oregonians.
“As the police chief, property crimes detectives would tell me stories about someone who had a bright future, a college athlete who was injured and became addicted to pain pills and started to commit crimes in order to pay for their addiction. They were arrested a number of times and went to prison for years. That’s a completely different scenario than those that existed in 1973.”
Serenity Lane has made strides to modernize its care to account for people with similar stories. One major component of this modernization is the introduction of medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for opioid use disorders. MAT is the use of certain medications, in combination with counseling and behavioral therapies, to provide a unique approach to the treatment of substance use disorders. Some of the medications used in MAT programs include methadone and buprenorphine, which curb opioid cravings without providing intoxicant effects.
Serenity Lane offers this treatment option in order to help people suffering from opioid use disorder manage their addiction, allowing them to hold down steady employment and eventually get their life back on track.
Studies on the efficacy of MAT programs are constantly being conducted, but many have already found positive results that suggest this approach to treatment for opioid use disorder provides the patient with the best chance at a positive outcome. One such study conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that when buprenorphine became available in Baltimore, deaths caused by heroin overdose decreased by 37% by the time the study ended in 2009. That same study also found that MAT increases social function and retention in treatment.
Serenity Lane strives to make their services accessible and affordable to the largest number of Oregon residents. Insurance coverage for addiction treatment can be a complicated issue and as an organization, they’ve worked diligently to be contracted by most all major insurance companies in order to improve access to treatment for individuals suffering with addiction issues.
Since the Kerns family and Serenity Lane have been providing people with the tools they need to live a life free of addiction for decades, it’s safe to say they will continue to update their treatment programming to meet the needs of Oregonians in the future.