By Steven Krolak
(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)—The Common Experience is sponsoring and co-sponsoring a series of events to educate the public about the ongoing opioid epidemic, and to highlight the urgent need for action on this national addiction crisis that is particularly acute in Appalachia and the Ohio Valley.
As part of its 2017 program, The Common Experience is examining issues raised by the book, Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance, a memoir of growing up in Eastern Kentucky.
“Given the extent of the crisis in our area and with many in our area having Appalachian and Rust Belt working class roots, it’s important to address it,” said Cliff Staten, professor of political science and international studies, and co-director of The Common Experience. “I am sure that many of us either know someone or know of someone or some family that has been touched by the opioid crisis, and this should be of tremendous interest to our students and members of the community.”
The series includes the following events that look at the crisis from a variety of viewpoints. All are free and open to the public.
The Opioid Crisis: Law Enforcement and Policy Perspectives
Keith Henderson (Floyd County Prosecutor), Jeremy Mull (Clark County Prosecutor), Otto Schalk (Harrison County Prosecutor)
Wed., Sept. 13, 6–8 p.m.
University Center, Room 127
“Hit of Hell”
A documentary by Otto Schalk
Wed., Sept. 27, 5:30–7 p.m.
University Center, Room 127
The Opioid Crisis: the Healthcare Perspective
Meribeth Adams Wolfe (Our Place), Dr. Carrie Lawrence (Rural Center for AIDS/STD Prevention), Joi McRae, ED, RN (Clark Memorial Hospital), Kristina Cooper, RN
Thurs., Oct. 12, 6–8 p.m.
University Center, Room 127
National emergency with local impacts
The recent spike in addiction to heroin, fentanyl, oxycontin and other naturally derived opiates and synthetic opioids has been declared a national emergency by the White House.
According to the New York Times, drug overdoses are the leading cause of death for Americans under 50, claiming more victims than guns or auto accidents.
In 2015, some 97 million people took opioids in the form of prescription painkillers, and 12 million of these consumed these drugs without being prescribed.
The crisis is generally thought to have its origins as far back as the 1980s, in a trend toward the overprescription of highly addictive painkillers. It accelerated during the 1990s as individuals became increasingly dependent. Today the situation is made worse by the spread of synthetic fentanyl, which is 50 times more powerful than heroin and much harder to trace. Addiction to opioids has been more prevalent, and serious, in areas that have been slow to recover from the Great Recession, as social and economic factors increase risk factors for some populations.
Several municipalities in Southern Indiana have seen alarming addiction rates and devastating social effects.
Otto Schalk is prosecutor in Harrison County, and a participant in the first Common Experience panel. The opioid crisis is a theme that has come to touch many aspects of his caseload, and has forced a shift in his approach.
“Even though there has always been a large volume of drug-related offenses that I deal with, the opioid epidemic has brought with it a staggering death toll that I had not seen,” Schalk said. “As a result, a focus of my work is now centered not just on seeking justice, but protecting the lives of users as well.”
This approach is particularly important, since increasingly opioids are finding their way into high schools and even middle schools. Providing prevention services to school-aged children is thus a greater priority, for young people and the entire community.
“The impact on our youth does not simply stop with their abuse of the drugs, but we also see more cases involving neglect of dependents as a result of parents being addicted to opioids,” Schalk said.
Schalk believes the opioid epidemic is not just a question for law enforcement—he considers “Just Say No” campaigns misguided and ultimately unsuccessful. This is also a public health issue, and Schalk feels both the criminal justice system and medical community need to become more cognizant of one another and their practices, in order to better collaborate.
The important first step in the search for solutions lies, in Schalk’s view, with raising awareness.
To that end, he produced a documentary that will be shown as part of the Common Experience series. The film, “Hit of Hell,” explodes myths and gives audiences of all ages a needed dose of reality surrounding the effects of opioid use as well as options for prevention and recovery.
“From those struggling with drug addiction and incarceration to elected officials, the film brought a much needed awareness to our community,” Schalk said.
A community approach
Meribeth Adams Wolfe, executive director of Our House, a local nonprofit that provides education, prevention and intervention services, will participate in the second panel, providing the healthcare perspective.
“When the individual is impacted, so is the family and so is the community,” said Adams Wolf. “Even if you do not have the experience of someone in your family being addicted to substances, the community pays a price through healthy youth development and educational challenges, employment and enforcement issues, strain on the healthcare system–and the list goes on.”
For that reason, Adams Wolfe agrees that incarceration alone is not the answer.
“Locking up addicts does not treat the problem,” Adams Wolfe said. “However if you intervene with illegal behavior and then offer treatment in that moment, that can be extremely effective.”
Mixing compassion with accountability, providing education and counseling, and working with other agencies, Our Place deals with the crisis on multiple levels.
“There are many simplistic answers that are not easy, because they involve changing knowledge, attitudes and behaviors,” Adams Wolfe said.
“All nurses in all settings are affected by the opioid crisis on a daily basis,” said Julia Mattingly, assistant professor of nursing, who has put together the healthcare panel.
For her, the opioid crisis is an essential teaching experience in an area that most, if not all, nursing students will need to address in the course of their working lives.
According to Mattingly, from caring for newborns with neonatal abstinence syndrome or delivering support for an overdosed patient in the emergency room to helping someone trying to overcome addiction through counsling or helping affected families in the community come to terms with the needs of an addicted parent, child, spouse or sibling, nurses in all areas are called upon to demonstrate expertise.
This expertise may ultimately help to inform policy, which is another reason for nursing students to stay on top of a rapidly developing field. So, too, are they advised to look beyond the confines of medicine for partners in fighting the epidemic, and be prepared to collaborate with other professional cultures.
“As future nurses, students need to understand that there is more to providing compassionate and holistic care to their opioid-addicted patients than the addiction alone,” Mattingly said. “Also, they will be potentially teaming up and working with law enforcement in trying to combat the opioid crisis and must understand this viewpoint and the challenges that law enforcement faces on a daily basis.”
Mattingly sees a benefit not only for students, but for the entire campus and community, in discussing the opioid crisis and developing collaborative strategies to address it.
“By providing IU Southeast students, faculty and staff with the opportunity to increase their awareness, knowledge and understanding of the different viewpoints on the opioid crisis, the university is promoting civic engagement and challenging participants to critically think about real-life social problems,” Mattingly said.
Homepage photo courtesy of Mary Meehan, Ohio Valley ReSource.