By Erin Chesnut
Today, more than 1,600 American teenagers will take the first step in a lifelong cycle of drug addiction. Today, 115 Americans will die from prescription painkiller overdoses. Today, someone you know is struggling in silence and denial.
Today, UT Martin alumni are doing something about it. “There’s no socioeconomic divide. It touches everyone, and it doesn’t matter who you are or what your background is. There’s always a risk for addiction, and it happens in all kinds of families,” says Suzanne Harper (Martin ’11), director of the Weakley County Prevention Coalition, as she discusses the 2016 national statistics for opioid and drug abuse.
The coalition’s staff of four works to combat drugs, alcohol and substance abuse in Weakley County, and coalition volunteers are on the front lines of the fight against opioid misuse and abuse in the area. Harper and her staff work directly with the local community to educate the public about the dangers of opioid misuse and, hopefully, change the futures of those who might otherwise become a statistic.
Ninety percent of prescription drug abusers begin the habit as teenagers, and this is where the coalition begins.
“Over 50 percent of kids report that they get medications from a family member—from the medicine cabinet or a purse or elsewhere in the house—and not from a drug dealer,” Harper says. The Tennessee Department of Health reports that, in 2016, one in six Tennessee teens admitted to using prescription or over-the-counter medications to get high, while 27 percent of teens and 16 percent of parents believed that using prescription drugs to get high is safer than using street drugs.
Courtney Echols (Martin ’14) works with schoolchildren as the coalition’s program coordinator. She says many teens don’t recognize the dangers of prescription medications because they came from a doctor. The sharing of prescriptions among friends and family members contributes significantly to the problem of teenage misuse.
“Parents allow (their children) to bring their prescription pills to school because they feel that (the children) are responsible enough. . . They can end up passing (the medication) on to their friends, not knowing what kind of side effects those prescription pills have on one another,” she says. Echols even encounters students who attend “Skittles parties,” where multiple prescriptions are poured into a bowl, and pills are taken at random, like candy.
“We are part of the Count it! Lock it! Drop it! program,” Harper says. The program encourages parents to count and lock up their pills and then properly discard them when they are no longer needed. The coalition distributes free prescription drug lock boxes to regional residents and has given out close to 1,000 boxes in Weakley County during the past two years.
Instead of throwing expired or unwanted drugs in the trash, Harper says there is a proper way to dispose of them. The coalition partners with local law enforcement to host designated drug take-back days twice each year, and Weakley County has six permanent drop-box locations where residents may anonymously return both prescription and over-the-counter medications at any time. One of these boxes is located on the UT Martin main campus and is the first of its kind to be housed at a Tennessee college or university.
“We have the (drug) drop-off box because we wanted to help get rid of any prescription or unwanted drugs in a safe manner,” says Josh Greer, UT Martin lecturer of health and human performance and faculty adviser to SOARx, the on-campus student anti-drug coalition. “When people are getting rid of these drugs, they are doing it in an unsafe manner, such as flushing them down the toilet or throwing them in the trash can. This (location) provides an opportunity for UT Martin students to (safely) get rid of any prescription drugs that they have.”
The coalition’s relationship with UT Martin has helped accomplish its goals.
“The UT Martin students make up a huge portion of our volunteer hours and our interns,” Harper says. Aside from current students, many of the coalition’s 100 volunteers are either UT Martin alumni or have university connections. According to the Tennessee Department of Health, the West Tennessee region, not including Shelby County, reported 102 drug overdose deaths in 2016, with 65 of those involving opioid drugs. Weakley County reported eight overdose deaths in the same year, with four of those related to opioid use. In a county where an average of 1.37 painkiller prescriptions per person were written that year (compared to a statewide average of 1.2 per person), opioid misuse, abuse and overdose are on the rise.
“This is one of those things that can go unnoticed because…it’s become so prevalent. People function day to day just like you or I…and you would never know that they are an addict,” says Melesa Lassiter, the coalition’s regional overdose prevention specialist. “You can’t say, ‘That person’s an addict; that person’s not’ just by looking at them. They drive cars. They have jobs. They move forward in society and hold high positions in society or they could be what you would typically think of as an addict… It could be anything in that realm from high class to low class.”
Someone of any age can unintentionally become addicted to prescription painkillers, even after taking them as prescribed by a physician, Lassiter says. Newborn babies can come into the world addicted to painkillers if a woman misuses them during her pregnancy. This often-invisible addiction creeps into households across America— into every walk of life—and those affected may not even realize they have become addicted until it’s too late.
“The first time I had pain pills, it wasn’t my choice. It was after an abscessed tooth,” Brannon Powell ( Knoxville ’84) says. As the coalition’s lifeline peer coordinator, Powell reaches out to those struggling with addictions and connects them with treatment and recovery programs. He admits to having used a variety of legal and illegal drugs through the years and says working with the coalition helps keep him sober.
“I lost a brother, and since I’ve been working in the treatment field, I’ve seen 14 people … that I have known personally—I’ve gotten to know them as they came through treatment—who went back out just one more time (and overdosed). They were all under 35, and most of them were early 20s,” he says. “I know how serious it is, and I struggled with it myself.”
The coalition also seeks to equip regional law enforcement officials with nasal Narcan—a fast-acting overdose-reversal drug that can save the life of someone who has overdosed on an opioid product.
Lassiter says the availability of Narcan is vital not only to transport overdose victims to hospitals but also to protect law enforcement officials from drugs they may encounter while working. The opioid fentanyl can be absorbed through the skin. At 50 to 100 times the strength of morphine, it can cause a life-threatening situation for any who come in contact with it. In addition to local law enforcement, Lassiter has equipped and trained the UT Martin Department of Public Safety and Office of Housing employees on nasal Narcan.
It’s all part of the coalition’s fight against drug abuse. “We’re trying to break the stigma about addiction,” Harper says. “It’s not just somebody’s life that isn’t worth living that you don’t even know out on the street. It could be your neighbor or your own child or your parent.”
For more information on Count It! Lock It! Drop It! countitlockitdropit.org
UT Martin is home to SOARx—“Students Organized Against Drugs on Campus”— one of the state’s first entirely student-run, anti-drug coalitions. The student members organize on-campus drug take-back events, distribute educational information to the university community and provide peer support to fellow students who may already struggle with drug addiction issues.
“We’re increasing awareness on campus and letting people know how they can get involved in their community,” Shawnee Edwards (Martin ’18), former vice president of SOARx, says.
Edwards graduated from UT Martin on May 5, earning a bachelor’s degree in health and human performance with a concentration in public health. While an undergraduate, she interned with the Weakley County Prevention Coalition and helped the organization educate the local and university communities regarding opioid misuse and addiction.
“A lot of people don’t understand the effect (opioid misuse) has on everyone,” she says. “Even though you think it’s not going to affect you, it can happen to someone that you know.”