All hands on deck to address opioid epidemic
It’s impossible to talk about the mental health system in North Carolina without also discussing substance abuse and how the opioid crisis is impacting resources within the system.
Mental health and addiction are tied so closely together it becomes a chicken and egg conundrum — did the mental illness cause the addiction or did the addiction cause the mental illness?
“You really can’t talk one without talking about the other — if someone has a mental health issue the next thing they may start doing are these kinds of drugs or it might be the other way around — the drugs or alcohol can cause them to have mental health issues,” said Haywood County Sheriff Greg Christopher. “And if we have somebody already having a mental health and illicit drug issue — what happens is not only are they affected but their entire family is affected and may need to seek mental health help. It tears families apart.”
Substance abuse — especially opioid addiction — is a multi-faceted issue that requires a multi-faceted solution. It’s destroying many young lives, devastating families and increasing law enforcement and medical costs for taxpayers.
Leaders on the local, state and federal levels are taking measures to tackle the opioid epidemic, which is responsible for 12,000 deaths in North Carolina since 1999. The devastation isn’t limited to North Carolina though — 90 Americans dying per day from opioid abuse, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
“I’ve been surprised how it affects every community. We used to think about addiction as only being in one area of town, but no — this affects every single community and now it’s created a heroin epidemic,” said U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-Asheville. “Now we’re seeing just because opioid addiction and the cost — they’re moving off that and into a heroin addiction. It hurts my heart to hear the family stories shared over and over again. We have to get everyone engaged.”
Meadows just introduced the Opioid Abuse Deterrence, Research and Recovery Act to place limitations on opioid prescriptions. The legislation would limit opioid prescriptions to seven days with exceptions for patients with cancer, chronic pain, end-of-life care or based on a doctor’s recommendations.
North Carolina also recently received a $31 million federal grant through the 21st Century Cures Act to go toward opioid addiction. The grant will be used to increase access to prevention, treatment and recovery supports, reducing unmet treatment need, and reducing opioid-related overdoses and deaths.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration awarded the grant to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. The funds will serve 1,460 individuals in the first year and 1,520 in the second, providing services to a total of 2,980 over the two-year span. This would represent an 18 percent increase in the number of patients currently being served in the state’s 54 private and publicly funded opioid treatment programs.
“The opioid crisis is one of the biggest challenges we face across our state,” Gov. Roy Cooper said. “This grant will help further our commitment to fight this epidemic that is destroying families and lives across our state. This is a problem we must solve for the safety and well being of our citizens. Our families, friends and neighbors need our help.”
Cooper announced North Carolina’s Opioid Action Plan during a summer Opioid Misuse and Overdose Prevention Summit. The 42-page document outlines a detailed strategy to reducing opioid deaths by 2021.
“North Carolina is losing lives to opioids, an addiction that ravages physical and mental health, hurts families and communities, and holds back our economy,” Cooper said. “This plan gives us a path to reduce these deaths and turn the tide on this crisis.”
On the local level, providers like Meridian Behavioral Health Services and Appalachian Community Services are working to offer more early intervention services and treatment programs for addiction. Several nonprofits and community action groups are working to raise awareness in the community. Law enforcement agencies are hiring more officers and are providing more training to meet the growing demand. Law enforcement officers are now armed with Narcan — an opioid overdose reversal drug that can easily be administered to save someone’s life.
Editor’s note: This is part four of an ongoing series on mental health issues in Western North Carolina. Visit www.smokymountainnews.com to read previous stories. Check out next week’s paper for a closer look at how opioid addiction is impacting our communities.
Opioid Epidemic in North Carolina
• Total number of opioid pills dispensed in 2016 — 555,916,512.
• From 1999-2016 more than 12,000 North Carolinians died from opioid-related overdoses.
• In 2016, opioid-related deaths in North Carolina were up by 20 percent from the previous year.
• If that rate continues, by 2021 North Carolina would expect to lose more than 1,500 additional lives per year to opioid overdose.
• According to CDC estimates, the cost of unintentional opioid-related overdose deaths in N.C. totaled $1.3 billion in 2015.
Opioid-related deaths by county
• Graham 1 2
• Haywood 8 8
• Jackson 4 3
• Macon 2 4
• Swain 2 1
• Buncombe 29 29
• N.C. total 642 1,100 (73 percent increase)
N.C. Opioid action plan 2017-2021
Strategies in the plan include:
• Coordinating the state’s infrastructure to tackle the opioid crisis.
• Reducing the oversupply of prescription opioids.
• Reducing the diversion of prescription drugs and the flow of illicit drugs.
• Increasing community awareness and prevention.
• Making naloxone widely available.
• Expanding treatment and recovery systems of care.
• Measuring the effectiveness of these strategies based on results.