Understanding the opioid crisis and what your club can do to help your community.
Story by Julie Saetre
Between 2014 and 2016, an Ebola outbreak in West Africa killed more than 11,000 people, drawing intense media attention and generating fear worldwide, despite the disease’s limited reach. Today’s heroin crisis gets plenty of press too, yet many people remain nonplussed—despite the fact that this epidemic impacts far too many lives.
“The growth of this crisis,” says Carlton Hall of Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA), “has impacted every segment, every corner of our society.”
Nowhere is this more evident than in the United States, which accounts for 25 percent of drug-related deaths worldwide, the United Nations recently reported. In 2016, some 59,000 people in the States died from a drug overdose—equivalent to a commercial airliner carrying more than 150 people crashing every day for an entire year. Drug overdoses are a key reason why life expectancy in the U.S. is declining for the first time since 1993.
The crisis is so widespread that it’s likely nearly every Kiwanis community has experienced a heroin-related death.
Drug-related epidemics aren’t new to the U.S. The 1960s saw Vietnam war veterans using heroin to cope; in the 1980s, crack cocaine swept through the nation. But today’s opioid resurgence reaches a whole new level.
“This crisis totally eclipses the other two,” says Hall, the deputy director of CADCA’s National Coalition Institute. “It has a feeder system that is unlike anything we’ve ever experienced before: the misuse and the abuse of prescription drugs.”
In 2015, U.S. physicians prescribed some 300 million prescriptions for opioids, enough to give everyone in the country a one-month supply. Some of those recipients become addicted, and when refills run out, they’ll turn to the streets to buy pills. Soon, though, they discover that heroin is readily available and much less expensive to purchase. At least 80 percent of heroin addicts were first exposed to opioids through prescription painkillers, according to the (U.S.) National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Sadly, youth aren’t immune.
“Many of those impacted are children who have either been prescribed opioids for a sports injury or a dental procedure or have been introduced to pain pills by a friend or family member for recreational use,” says Pat Aussem, parent partner with the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids.
Other youth must deal with an addicted family member; some have witnessed overdoses by family and friends.
“A history of familial substance misuse is one of the greatest factors for substance misuse by a child,” Aussem says. “Then there are the youngest among us, children born with neonatal abstinence syndrome as a result of their mother’s opioid use disorder. In 2012, over 21,000 babies were diagnosed with this condition.”
The numbers are daunting, but they don’t have to be destiny. Kiwanis clubs can make a difference.
“The beautiful thing about Kiwanis clubs is that you are everywhere,” Hall says. “You have the opportunity to engage in solution-making, problem-solving, at a very local level. And we believe a community response at the local level is the best way of addressing these issues.”
Here are 11 ways Kiwanis clubs can help:
- Join your community’s anti-drug coalition. Visit cadca.org to find one near you. No coalition close by? Start your own; advice can be found on the same website. CADCA works in more than 20 nations.
- Educate your members. Over a period of four or five meetings, schedule a series of speakers who can provide key perspectives on the crisis. Hear insights from a law enforcement officer, paramedic, social worker, recovering addict, prosecutor, etc.
- Educate the public. For adults, host a screening of “Out of Reach,” a teen-made documentary spotlighting prescription drug abuse among youth. For high school students and young adults, show “Chasing the Dragon: The Life of an Opioid Addict.” Contact the Partnership for Drug Free Kids (drugfree.org) or the FBI (fbi.gov), respectively, for more information. The Partnership also offers links to community education presentations that can be localized (drugfree.org/heroin).
- Partner with your Key Club or CKI club to host an opioid prevention and education session. “Often, younger people can help adults understand what’s really going on and reasons why kids choose to use—or not use—alcohol and drugs,” says Kevin Collins, director of Parent and Community Support Services for the Partnership.
- Sponsor an evidence-based prevention program for at-risk youth. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (rcmp-grc.gc.ca) offers lesson plans that teach students how to recognize risks and develop personal strategies. In the U.S., established curricula—such as the Strengthening Families Program (strengtheningfamiliespro
gram.org) for elementary and middle school children or Project Towards No Drug Abuse (tnd.usc.edu) for high school students—focus on decision-making abilities, coping mechanisms, self-esteem building, leadership skills and more.
- Donate to a youth recovery center. Such facilities provide in- or out-patient services and tools to teens fighting substance abuse and addiction.
- Help children of addicts. “If other family members use opioids, children can be at risk of being removed from the home by child protective services,” says Partnership for Drug-Free Kids’ Pat Aussem. Contact your community’s child welfare agency to see how your members can help, whether it’s with money, meals or mentoring.
- Help first responders save lives. Donate funds that law enforcement officers, firefighters and others can use to purchase Narcan kits. Narcan—or Naloxone—blocks or reverses the effects of opioids, literally bringing overdose victims back from the brink of death.
- Sponsor a Narcan training class. In some locations, Narcan can be purchased without a prescription by those concerned about a family member or friend’s addiction. Work with your health department to teach people how to properly administer this lifesaving medicine.
- Join a takeback event. Keep opioid medications out of youths’ hands by providing or promoting a safe place to dispose of unwanted/unused/expired prescriptions. Contact your law enforcement agency to host a community event.
- Let families know help is available. The Partnership’s toll-free hotline (1-800-DRUGFREE) and chat service (drugfree.org/helpline) walk parents through their concerns. “That can be anything,” Collins says, “from ‘How do I keep my kid from starting to use’ to ‘How do I find treatment’ to ‘How do I support my kid’s recovery?’” The Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (cclt.ca) lists provincial helpline numbers.
This story originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Kiwanis magazine.