The opioid crisis continues to impact urban and rural communities across the nation, with overdose deaths quadrupling in the last two decades. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that more than 130 Americans die every day from opioid overdose.
While the opioid crisis gets the lion’s share of public attention, opioids aren’t the only problem in the U.S. today. Alcohol claims approximately 88,000 lives every year. Deaths associated with cocaine and methamphetamine are also on the rise.
There are no easy answers or miracle solutions to problem of alcohol and substance use disorders in our society. However, a few committed people working together can make a difference.
Like anyone reading this article, for instance: even you.
Bringing People Together
If you’re a member of a community organization, you already have a group of caring, hard-working folks you can enlist to help your friends, neighbors, and family members with issues around alcohol and drugs. If you’re not the member an existing group, you can join forces with a local service club or organization such as the Scouts, 4-H, Rotary Clubs, or civic/philanthropic organizations unique to your area.
Putting together a campaign to address alcohol and substance use disorder in your community is a big job, but it’s worth both your time and energy. A group of interested citizens can combine resources, share responsibility and accountability, and create a sense of commitment while doing vital community work and building friendships along the way.
It’s a good idea to include young people in community groups, not merely as tokens, but as valued contributors. Teens are smart, capable, and savvy: offer them positions of responsibility and let them share their ideas and knowledge.
They’re also energetic, which can be a big help.
The organization you create should be inclusive and include anyone interested or in a position to offer assistance. First on your list should be educators and local government officials, followed by medical providers, first responders, religious organizations, treatment providers, and local businesses.
Understand the Risks in Your Community
Before you can help, you must understand the problems that are specific to your community.
Shatterproof, a national non-profit organization, suggests that communities consider factors such as availability of drugs, community laws and norms regarding drug use, and relevant socioeconomic issues.
Also, it will help save time to research current official alcohol, drug, and tobacco policies in your area, as well as school programs sponsored by your local school district or after-school programs at places like Boys and Girls Clubs of America or the YMCA.
Building something from scratch can be fulfilling, but if you don’t need to reinvent the wheel, you shouldn’t. You can spend your time and energy building on what already exists.
Education is Key
Everyone in the community needs to understand the risks of drug and alcohol use in order to fully grasp the seriousness of the situation. Important awareness goals should include:
- Informing people about populations vulnerable to alcohol or substance use disorders
- Sharing knowledge about how families are impacted by addiction
- Imparting the knowledge that evidence-based treatment works
- Providing detailed, local information on where people can go for treatment
- Giving access to information regarding resources for people who need treatment but can’t afford it
Educational information can be shared in various formats, such as:
- Town hall meetings
- Billboards and other advertisements
- Social media
- Op-ed pieces in local newspapers
It’s important to take steps to ensure young people in your community are involved. Provide them with age-appropriate material but be straightforward and skip the scare tactics – most young people are smart enough to know when information is being manipulated for effect. Involve teens in planning and presentation: this will help the younger kids pay attention. Some kids prefer to listen to the advice of anyone but their parents or other adults, and the ones who do listen to adults might listen more closely to an older, respected peer.
Also, educating your community about alcohol and substance use should be viewed as a long-term project rather than a one-off event. Consider creating interesting, compelling activities, and don’t overwhelm people with armloads of brochures and pamphlets. Although there’s nothing funny about alcohol and substance use disorders, you can organize fun events to get your point across.
The rest of this article discusses the issues that need the most attention with regards to alcohol and substance use at the moment:
- Improving access to treatment
- Understanding what problem alcohol and drug use looks like
- Explaining the shift in attitudes toward treatment and addiction
- Increasing knowledge of local laws and policies
- Expanding access to Naloxone.
If you start a community group and focus on these issues, you’ll be part of a growing movement to help increase awareness and improve the lives of people touched by alcohol and drug use. You’ll share these talking points with advocates and similar organizers across the nation in a coordinated effort to improve the health and well being of individuals and families in all our communities.
Improving Access to Treatment
Treatment for addiction should be available to all who need it. The Affordable Care Act requires a basic level coverage for addiction and mental health. However, the treatment gap is real: a relatively small percentage of people who need treatment actually get the treatment they need.
There are several reasons for this. Many people who need treatment have no insurance, and paying out of pocket is not an option. Others are concerned about shame, stigma, and possible loss of employment. Many claim they aren’t ready to stop, or they believe they can stop using on their own.
There are other significant barriers to treatment. For instance, standard treatment may not be workable for pregnant women or young mothers who lack childcare. It may not be suitable for the elderly or individuals with special needs. Lack of transportation is an issue for some people.
While Twelve-Step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) are a valuable and life-saving part of treatment for many people, others need more help than a support group, especially in the beginning. People who seek treatment need a full evaluation by a mental health professional to determine if they need medically supervised detox, for instance.
Treatment should include and/or address the following:
- Mental health issues
- Individual counseling/therapy
- Group counseling/therapy
- Family education/family therapy
- Relapse awareness and prevention
- Medication-assisted treatment if indicated
- Aftercare plan for sustained recovery
NIDA says quality treatment can reduce drug use by 40 to 60 percent, which is similar to the success rate of treatment for other chronic illnesses, including diabetes, hypertension, and asthma. Treatment also offers a significant reduction in criminal activity, increases employability, and reduces the risk of contracting HIV.
When working to educate your community about addiction, one thing to remind anyone addiction touches is to never give up hope. With the right support, recovery is always possible – that goes for everyone.
Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms of Drug Misuse
Law enforcement personnel and first responders are well trained and know what to look for, but many people in your community may not know how to recognize the signs and symptoms of disordered alcohol or drug use.
Learning how to spot early warning signs, both physical and behavioral, will increase the possibility that people will receive treatment and support before they become seriously addicted. Start with this resource maintained by NIDA: The Science of Drug Use and Addiction: The Basics. From there, the NIDA website provides a wealth of resources. With that said, we also recommend reaching out to counselors, therapists, and people you know who may be in recovery themselves.
Shift the Focus: Change the Conversation
Over the past several decades, there’s been a significant change in the way we view addiction and addiction treatment that’s aligned with what’s known as restorative justice. The idea there is to focus more on rehabilitation than punishment. The transposition of this idea to addiction means that we now take a treatment first attitude. What this means, in practical terms, is that when you see someone in your community living with an alcohol or substance use problem, the first question to ask yourself is “How can I help this person?” rather than “How can we remove this person from our community as quickly as possible?”
If you see or hear of someone who needs help, offer your support. Encourage adolescents and younger kids to make healthy decisions. In order to do that, give them real facts and information about drugs and alcohol: it will not help to sugarcoat or dumb things down. When you speak to them openly and honestly, you’ll earn their trust, which will, in turn, build their self-esteem and increase their sense of connection to the community. From that place of respect and confidence, they’ll be an ally in you mission to increase awareness about alcohol and substance use.
Work to Change Policies
As a community advocate, it’s incumbent upon you to learn about laws and policies in your state, county, and city. Once you’re familiar with the laws and policies, you can work to change those that are outdated or ineffective. If you identify problems in law or policy, you can reach out to local officials to start a dialogue about ways to improve those laws and policies. Reach out to any relevant medical professionals to partner in your efforts, also: they can help you gather the facts and figures you need and serve as subject matter experts if and when you do meet with local officials.
Improve Access to Naloxone
One of the most important things your community organization can do is support and encourage expanded access to naloxone. This life-saving medication should be available to first responders, law enforcement personnel, family and friends of people with opioid use disorder, or anyone who may come into contact with people at risk of fatal overdose.
Naloxone, often known by its trade name, Narcan, can prevent deadly overdose by reversing and blocking the effects of opioid drugs, including heroin, morphine, and prescription painkillers such as OxyContin or hydrocodone.
The medication was previously only available in injectable vials, which required professional training to acquire, possess, and administer. Thankfully, Narcan is now offered in prefilled auto-injection devices and prepackaged nasal spray. Many organizations offer free nasal spray, including training on how and when to administer naloxone. State and federal grants may also be available. To find naloxone in your state, click here.