As the opioid addiction epidemic spreads across the country, and even takes root in our very own Tri-Town, the issue of addiction – opioids, alcohol, nicotine, all addictions – has become a priority for area public health employees who serve the Tri-Town citizens.
Especially susceptible to addiction are the youth of Tri-Town, and as recent youth risk surveys at the junior and high school have shown, the risk is present and very real as young adults make poor decisions to try addictive substances long before the development of their brain’s frontal lobes can dictate otherwise.
Reverend Catherine Harper at Saint Gabriel’s Episcopal Church in Marion has seen firsthand the effects that addiction has on the youth of the community and their families struggling to support loved ones afflicted with addiction. Harper, along with Public Health Nurse Kathleen Downey, has joined the addiction awareness movement in Tri-Town to get residents, especially children, informed on addiction and how parents and caregivers can arm themselves with the knowledge to keep their children safe from the perils of addiction.
A few of Harper’s parishioners had approached her, seeking guidance and support for their families struggling with a family member with addiction.
“These parishioners and myself decided we wanted to bring some education and awareness to our parish community and out into the community to bring awareness of what’s going on,” said Harper. Many in Tri-Town communities, Harper said, believe, “It’s not me, it doesn’t have anything to do to me,” said Harper, “and not realizing that it’s happening around the corner.”
“I was not aware really of how bad the crisis was, and seeing the need and trying to encourage our parishioners to get involved,” said Harper. “Now we’ve all come together to address addition.”
The first step was a survey amongst prominent town leaders – elected and appointed officials, religious leaders, law enforcement, and educators – who are in cornerstone positions of the community.
“What came back on every single survey was, pay attention to the high school kids, the junior high school kids, go back to the schools,” said Harper. “And it’s all substances, not just opioids.”
The youth risk assessment survey soon followed, which returned shocking statistics on junior and senior high school student experimentation with addictive substances, the impetus for the establishing of the community-wide group Healthy Tri-Town Coalition, whose aim is to increase awareness of addiction and other matters that threaten the health of Tri-Town citizens.
According to Downey, Tri-Town has seen its share of tragedy caused by addiction. “There have been deaths in the Tri-Town,” Downey said, and the use of Narcan (Nalaxone) within the community to save lives from opioid overdose.
“There are families that are deeply involved,” said Downey. “Overdoses, kids in the school system…. We haven’t lost a student to an overdose, but we have lost recent graduates, which makes it all the more compelling that we have to get involved.”
Downey offered some scary statistics: just one dose of an addictive substance of any kind to a child age 13 and under raises that child’s chance of future addiction by 25% and up to 50%, depending on the study cited.
“That is scary,” said Downey. These substances include seemingly harmless medications like cough syrup with codeine, and Percocet often prescribed for pain.
To drive home the message that every child – your child – is susceptible to addiction, the coalition has brought in renowned speaker Dr. Ruth Potee on “The Developing Brain and Addiction,” on Thursday, April 27, in the ORR High School auditorium.
Potee is one of Massachusetts’ leading experts on the physiology of addiction and the teenage brain.
The coalition believes the attendance of ALL parents in Tri-Town is critical to parents understanding the risk factors and how to protect their children.
Whether the addictive element is drugs, alcohol, nicotine, sugar, video games, or caffeine, the understanding of how addition “re-wires” the brain is essential in order to prevent it. Dr. Potee will offer this information and more, said Downey, who encourages both parents and children to come to the event.
“She had a very powerful dialog, just talking about, as a family member, the hurt and the pain that they went through,” said Downey. “She held everybody. She engages the audience. She’s really impressive.”
The risk to opioid addiction in particular is of increasing importance now, Downey said, as powerful and deadly opioids have started appearing in cocaine and marijuana, which have caused the overdoses of young people in Brockton, as reported by medical staff at Brockton Hospital, Downey pointed out.
These victims, said Downey, claimed never to have tried opioids, yet Narcan was able to recover the victims from an overdose – and Narcan only works on opioids.
“This is not just starting,” said Downey. “We’re going to continue to see more and more cases and anybody who thinks this does not affect this community, they’re nuts.”
A key element to protecting kids, said Downey, is to reach them younger than we have thus far, all the way into pre-school.
“And erase the stigma,” said Downey. “We have to address the stigma.”
“I’m just praying that kids and parents will come to this,” said Harper.
When people finally open their eyes to addiction, said Downey, they wonder how they missed it up until then.
“It’s just being open to it and saying, you know, I’m not going to be surprised,” said Downey.
Downey wants to see all Tri-Town teens at the April 27 presentation.
“We hope to fill that auditorium,” Downey said.
The Dr. Ruth Potee presentation of “The Developing Brain and Addiction” is Thursday, April 27, at 7:00 pm at the Old Rochester Regional High School Auditorium. The event is free to the public. Refreshments will be served. For further information, visit www.healthytritowncoalition.org.
By Jean Perry