With overdose rates climbing locally, the Patrick County Extension Office hosted the second Addressing Addiction Conference on May 26, both to educate and raise awareness of the problem and the unique issues facing this area.
More than 100 registered for the conference, and attendees ranged from concerned residents, school administrators, members of the recovery sector and individuals in various stages of recovery.
The conference got off to an emotional start with Terry and Robin Amos sharing their story about losing their son to an overdose. Terry Amos said like many others, his son was introduced to opioids through a prescription to treat pain from an injury.
Amos cautioned about stereotyping those with opioid use disorder, and noted his son was a hard worker who hid his addiction from his friends. His son once described his addiction by saying, “every waking minute, my body screams, I want to get high.”
Opioids, “rip families apart,” Amos said, describing the aftereffects many families of overdose victims face. As a result, Amos and others plan to start a recovery program in Patrick County.
Celebrate Recovery will be a Christ-Centered recovery program with a targeted start of late summer. “This program has the ability to help Patrick County,” said Amos, adding, “it’s all about helping people.”
Locally, the overdose rate in 2020 was 51.4 per 100,00 people, up from 22.7 in 2019. The statewide rate in 2020 was 20.4.
The statistics tell the story of increased drug and opioid use in the county, and a primary issue is how to meet the unique conditions and needs in the rural area.
Beth O’Connor, president of the National Rural Health Association, said a misconception is that “rural is not smaller.” Taking programs that work in larger communities and scaling them down doesn’t work or meet the specific needs of rural communities.
Dr. Carlin Rafie, principal investigator for an AmeriCorps funded project on the Opioid Epidemic in Rural Virginia, discussed the many challenges facing the county, including the lack of any long-term treatment options and forcing those in need to go outside their home county for help. Limited transportation options for many with substance use disorder (SUD) only add to the problem of seeking treatment, along with the need for a local, dedicated detox facility.
On a positive note, Sean Adkins, Director of Economic Development for Patrick County, said work on reopening the hospital is underway, with the Emergency Room slated to be open by year’s end. Adkins said the hospital’s owners are planning to add mental health and substance abuse facilities as part of future phases of the reopening project.
An issue that many of the speakers agreed on is the need to raise awareness about substance and opioid use disorders, and specifically, eliminating the stigma surrounding addiction. The stigma acts as a deterrent to many who might seek treatment, particularly older adults who may have become addicted to opioids by taking them as a prescription for pain or injury.
Fear of negative reactions from friends and family keeps them from getting the help they need. In addition, the children of those with SUD often face stigmatization. In rural communities, the family and social networks in close-knit communities can be a positive for those needing help, but can also be a negative if they are being stigmatized for their disorder, officials said.
O’Connor said another stigma issue facing Virginia is the need for more professionals to help to those with an SUD because state law is a roadblock.
Peer Recovery Specialists are state certified, and are often individuals who faced a past addiction, received treatment and now want to help others with their recovery, she said.
However, “current regulations in Virginia make it difficult for someone with a felony on their record to be hired as a Peer Recovery Specialist, even if that felony is drug related,” O’Connor said, and explained that while they can be hired by private employers, state-funded employers cannot hire them.
The “training programs for peer recovery specialists in southwest Virginia have increased the number of peers available in Eastern Tennessee because of the barrier to being hired in Virginia,” O’Connor said, adding, “they go where they can get hired.”
In addition, the funding for rural programs faces unique issues. Leaders often view the success of a program based on the number of people helped per dollar spent. With fewer people in rural communities, programs risk a loss of funding by those who see a lower number of people being helped, even if the program is finding some level of success.
“Rural communities often lose out because they are drowned out by the big cities,” said O’Connor.
A program finding success in Henry County is “This is Not About Drugs,” the first program to address opioid use in children. Headed by Valerie Blevins of Piedmont Community Services, the program from overdoselifeline.org seeks to educate 6th to 12th graders on the risks of pain drug misuse and how it can lead to addiction, heroin use or even death; how to recognize an opioid overdose, and understanding the disease of addiction and its impact on individuals, families and friends.
In addition, the program teaches the students alternatives to substance use when dealing with stress and many ways to seek help and available resources. Programs like this are important, said Blevins, as “the younger the child starts using drugs, the higher the risk of addiction.”
Conference organizers also amassed a simulation that shocked many who saw it. Called, “Hidden in Plain Sight,” the simulation featured two teen-age bedrooms. It posed the challenge of identifying the signs of potential drug use – most of which were out in the open. At first glance, most of the items appeared to be innocent and wouldn’t draw any attention, but a closer look revealed what the items really were.
There was a normal-looking hairbrush that, when the end of the handle was removed, revealed a hollow handle – a perfect place to hide drugs or act as a flask for alcohol. Also among the more innocent looking items was a lint roller that was nothing more than a hollow shell. The simulation included other items such as a purse, scarf, hoodie, and even a sports bra – all equipped with hidden bladders and/or hollow tubes that provided a discreet way to drink.
“Parents are just not aware,” said conference organizer Terri Alt, adding that she purchased the displayed items on Amazon. Despite getting the word out at teacher training and PTO meetings, she said youngsters are always one step ahead of the parents in this all too serious game of hide and seek.
Organizers encouraged attendees to pose questions and/offer opinions on the topics covered.
One of the key questions was, “what do you think are the most pressing issues that need to be addressed as it is related to opioid and substance misuse in Patrick County and surrounding areas?”
The answers ranged from reducing stigma to better treatment options. The hope is to put all the feedback received to use in formulating future plans to address the local opioid and drug addiction issues.