Rosana Sielaff, program director of the LifeSteps Coalition, said, “The event is to raise awareness about the opioid abuse and how to save lives using naloxone (naloxone explained below). We want to support those who lost their loved ones, those who are struggling with substance use disorders and those in recovery. Opioid use is not only a problem for people in addiction, it is a problem to anyone who uses pain medication. Overdose does not discriminate!”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, 144 people in the United States die each day from a drug overdose. Many of these overdoses—91 a day—are from opioids, a class of drugs that include the illegal drug heroin, as well as the legal prescription pain relievers oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, fentanyl and others.
Opioids attach to receptors in the brain. Once attached, they send signals to the brain that block pain and slow breathing. When the Central Nervous System that controls our ability to breathe and keep the heart beating is depressed too far by opioid depressants, these functions can slow down and eventually stop, producing permanent brain damage or sudden death. The drug naloxone prevents opioids from binding in the brain, which can temporarily reverse an overdose. The effects of naloxone begin within two to five minutes after the medication is administered, but immediate emergency care is still critical. In Texas, naloxone can be purchased at Walgreens and CVS. These pharmacies have a standing order to sell it to anyone. Go to http://www.getnaloxonenow.org/, an online resource that trains people to respond effectively to an opioid-associated overdose emergency.
The use of painkillers for a brief time under a doctor’s care is generally safe. However, regular use, even when prescribed by a doctor, can sometimes lead to dependence, and when misused, to overdose incidents and deaths. Teenagers and adults usually find ways to obtain prescription and synthetic pain killers illegally, and it’s not uncommon for some to end up as heroin users. Nineteen percent of Texas high school students report they have taken pills without a doctor’s prescription. Many senior adults forget how many prescription pain killers they’ve taken and accidentally overdose. On Jan. 21, 2016, the CDC reported that since 2000, the rate of deaths from drug overdoses has increased 137 percent, including a 200 percent increase in the rate of overdose deaths involving opioids.
Medical and mental health professionals are discussing and adopting strategies for safer and more appropriate opioid prescribing, including drug monitoring programs, restricting patients to a single pharmacy or provider, patient and provider education, and health care system policies for prescribing and dispensing opioids. Other programs promote prescribing smaller quantities and lower doses of opioids, along with public prescription drop-off boxes.
We often view people struggling with addiction with contempt and lack of sympathy. Worse yet, when they end up in jail, often for petty crimes to support their habits, the jails lack the resources to provide services to them. Donna Connell, mother of twin sons with substance use disorders, lost one of them to an overdose almost three years ago. She said, “Through my own personal experiences as the Court Administrator of the 368th District Court in Williamson County for 25 years, and more importantly, having a loved one in the system, I see a need for programs in our jail to help people recover and make positive changes. A good starting point could be anger management classes, parenting classes and Alcoholics Anonymous. We need to begin to address the core issues of the problems.”
Ms. Connell, who started an Al-Anon group in Round Rock for parents of substance users and alcoholics, calls herself a self-proclaimed advocate and voice for her son and others who have not survived their disease. She believes that we “need to give them some hope that their lives can be different and the tools to come out and do things differently. We cannot incarcerate addiction and mental health illness out of someone, and if we do not take a different approach, jail is just a revolving door. I believe there is a tide of change coming in the approach to substance use. I am hopeful Williamson County will embrace these changes.”
In my earlier article in March, I wrote about Williamson County’s Mobile Outreach Team, whose mission is to intercept people with mental illness and divert them to treatment rather than to incarceration. They are also now working, along with our EMS crews, to intercept opioid users.
To help overcome opioid addiction, medications like methadone and buprenorphine can work, but cost and other factors prevent many from ever being treated. More effort towards promoting and funding these medications is needed in and out of the jail system.
We all need to work together to find solutions to this growing problem and one-too-many tragedies. Education is the first place to start, and LifeSteps provides this throughout the area, welcoming individuals from all community sectors to join the Coalition. Their doors are open to youth, parents, law enforcement, religious organizations, business, civic and volunteer groups, the media, schools, elected officials, health professionals and any others interested in their mission.
As the Coalition’s slogan states: Local people solve local problems! You are an essential part of Williamson County community! Everyone living in the community can advocate for environmental changes.
We cannot continue to just accept this epidemic. It’s affecting all of us, so I want to be a part of the solution as a county commissioner, learning everything I can about opioids and drug overdose, and looking for ways to better combat this epidemic.
I hope to see a crowd of supporters at the Williamson County Overdose Awareness Day.
For more information on the Awareness Day or LifeSteps Coalition, go to www.LifeStepsCouncil.org or call 512-246-9880.