Opioid addiction is a continuing concern for Lincoln County healthcare providers, first responders and agencies. Formed in 2017, the Lincoln Controlled Substances Coalition held the second annual Lincoln County Opioid Summit on Friday to discuss needs, options and to develop strategic planning for care and treatment for substance abuse. 

Currently, North Carolina is ranked 16th in the United States for death rate attributed to opioids.

“Where’s our education rate?” Kim Green, the Lincoln County Emergency Medical services deputy director, asked in her introduction. She was met with silence from the room. 

“We don’t rate that high in education,” Green said. “Yet we rate that high in opioid use. I’m not trying to beat anyone down or say that the educators in this county aren’t doing their job because they do a fantastic job. That just demonstrates how serious the problem is in our state.”

The day consisted of discussion panels, facilitated group discussion and firsthand stories of addiction and recovery. The first panel consisted, in part, of three Asbury Academy students. Their names were not given but their stories shined what might have been fresh light for many of the participants on the insidious nature of opioids within the community and the work that still needs to be done. 

Their living situations were quite varied — one was taken away from her parents when she was 1 year old due to drug abuse and was placed in foster care. She was adopted when she was three and lived with adoptive parents for 14 years in Michigan and returned to North Carolina four months ago to live with her biological father. Another left home at the age of 15 due to abuse from his father who was, at least part of the time, addicted to opioids. One had been living with her grandparents since she was a toddler, with her drug-addicted parents returning to her life from time to time.

Several of the students were exposed to opioids due to access to medications prescribed to their parents or caregivers. Two of them were taught how to “shoot up” by their parents. All three said that this exposure forced them to grow up far quicker than they wanted to.

“I’ve experienced things that no 14-year-old should ever experience,” one student said. “That’s just how life is. It’s an issue that I don’t want my children to see so I think it’s definitely something we should solve.”

The students all said that they’d received little or no education on the dangers of opioids. When asked what education they’d like to have received, one said that she thought that it should be provided in school and another suggested that this education should be accompanied by personal stories. They all worried about being judged for their exposure and/or use of opioids and wanted access to confidential help.

One of the more outgoing of the three students shared that he hadn’t seen much change since the last Opioid Summit. He currently lives with a foster mother in a different county but stays in contact with friends in the area. Many of these friends are addicted to opioids or other drugs.

“A lot of them are worried about being judged when looking for help,” he said. “They are even worried about hotlines or going to treatment centers. I just haven’t seen as much progress as I thought would have been made since last year. I think you have made a difference in the adult world but not the teenage world.”

Providers have to go about reaching children in a different way, he told the attendees. 

“My little brother is doing things at 11 that I never did,” he said. “It’s ever-changing and a war that you’ll always need to fight. There’s a solution, you just need to find it.”

When prompted, the same student suggested utilizing social media to reach young people instead of “shoving it in their faces.” Another suggested providing more information to parents on opioid use by youth and, in particular, how creative they could be in hiding drugs, as well as providing easier access to drug testing so they’d know for sure if their children were using. Locking up drugs was another solution offered because several of the students started using and/or selling drugs that they got from their caregivers.

The students didn’t have much to offer for potential solutions that would have worked to help them avoid drugs from the beginning. This, they said, was due to their difficult and stressful home lives. One suggested providing access to another outlet such as a youth group, but that student admitted that he likely wouldn’t have gone to it. He also said that, in most instances, he felt that problems and stresses within the home life were what led most young people to drugs.

“I have a good heart and I’m a really sensitive and soft person,” one of the female students said. “Hearing the struggles that other people and families have gone through would have helped me. When you see the damage it’s done to someone and hear it in their voice, it has an impact on me at least.”

The third student suggested more education might have helped as well as having an improved home life or a different outlet.

“I did try to get on the soccer team but I didn’t have a way to get my physical done so I couldn’t get on the team,” she said.

Also on this first discussion panel was Lee Ann Arrowood, a Lincoln County Schools middle school counselor, who shared that they were seeing drug abuse students throughout the system as well as in their parents and some of the ramifications of the abuse. The consequences of opioid and other drug abuse on the homeless population was outlined by John Hall, the director of Hesed House of Hope. 

The second discussion panel addressed recovery and resources, or lack thereof, available to those suffering from opioid and other addictions. In late 2018, North Carolina was granted $27 million to fight the state’s opioid epidemic. These grants included $23 million from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and $4 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The SAMHSA grants are intended to provide resources to focus on treatment and reducing opioid overdose-related deaths through prevention. Also in late 2018, Partners Behavior Health Management received a $1.6 million SAMHSA grant to help combat opioid addiction, but these resources are only available to Gaston and Lincoln County residents age 18 or older. 

Tracy Sawyers, a small business owner within the community, shared the story of her son Joshua’s struggle with opioid abuse. As a young adult, he was injured and prescribed opioids to help with the pain. It became an addiction which Joshua and his family fought for 10 years. Throughout her talk, Sawyers shared the difficulties her family faced getting help for her son and how instead of his addiction being treats as a mental illness, he was treated as a criminal. Joshua committed suicide in 2018. The youth and children’s pastor at Macedonia Baptist Church, Jeremy Smathers, shared his story of addiction and recovery.

General resource assistance is available to Lincoln County residents by dialing 2-1-1. The national drug abuse hotline number is 877-722-8766 and the national suicide hotline is 800-273-8255.

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