Drug overdose deaths have surpassed auto accidents as the leading cause of accidental deaths, both in the nation and in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania has the 5th worst drug overdose mortality rate in the nation. Addiction can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender or background.
The Newville community learned some of the stigmas attached to addiction last Tuesday during a presentation by Sally Kammerer, associate director of the Cumberland-Perry Drug & Alcohol Commission. The event, supported by the Big Spring Kiwanis Club and the Big Spring United Lutheran Church, was an informative session that touched on the nature of addiction, the signs and symptoms of use, what addiction is, its effect on individuals, families and communities, and what we can all do in response.
“Addiction is a chronic, progressively relapsing brain disease that can last a lifetime if left untreated,” she said. “The good news is, it can be treated. It can't be cured, but it can be treated.”
Kammerer said she understands there are many arguments surrounding addiction being classified as a disease.
“There are brain images of those with addiction that show actual physical changes to the areas of the brain that are critical to judgment, behavior control and decision making,” she said. “People will say, 'Well, why don't you quit? You see how destructive it is.' But, it's not that simple.”
Kammerer said the effects of the drug/s that people take change the way their brains are wired, which keeps them feeding the monster known as addiction.
“Nobody says, 'Pick me! I want to be addicted,'” she noted. “Your brain doesn't discern if you're using a drug because you're curious or because you're depressed. No one sets out to become addicted to drugs or alcohol. Anyone can become addicted. None of us are immune.”
Kammerer said the increase in painkiller prescriptions in the U.S., beginning in the late 1990s, is one of the contributors to the opioid epidemic. She noted prescription painkillers are the most abused prescription medication in the country. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the sale of prescription painkillers increased by 300 percent in the 1990s. Kammerer said Dr. Carrie DeLone of Holy Spirit-Geisinger told her colleagues that “we are responsible” for this because of prescribing too much.
“The U.S. makes up less than 5 percent of the world population, and we consume 80 percent of the world supply of prescription painkillers,” Kammerer added. She said when she had her wisdom teeth out in college, she doesn't remember the doctor telling her to take Advil. “Now they prescribe a healthy amount of opiates like Percocet or Oxycotin.”
She noted because prescription painkillers are so expensive, patients turn to heroin to make them feel better since it is so cheap these days. One prescription painkiller on the street can cost $40, compared to $10 for a dose of heroin. Statistics also show that 80 percent of heroin users in the U.S. started with prescription painkillers.
Thanks to measures taken to reduce the amount of painkiller prescriptions, databases with the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program have been developed to identify patients who “doctor hop” in order to fuel their addiction.
A reduction in painkiller production has also been ordered through state officials, and other programs and legislation are being developed to battle the epidemic.
“The trend in prescribing has gone down from a 2010 peak,” she said. “Again, that's really good news.”
Kammerer said it is imperative that we discuss addiction, drugs and alcohol with our children, and teach them about the dangers of using at an early age.
According to the PA Youth Survey results, in 2017, .5 percent of Cumberland County high school seniors reported ever having used heroin, but 9 percent of high school seniors reported having used prescription painkillers for non-medical purposes. Kammerer noted that number was down from 13.1 percent in 2015.
The survey also showed 1.7 percent of seniors used painkillers within 30 days prior to taking the survey in 2017, down from 3.3 percent. Common sources of the medication were from family members or friends, or taken from a family member.
The survey also showed that alcohol, marijuana, cigarettes, smokeless tobacco and prescription narcotics were the top five drugs used among Cumberland County students in 6th, 9th and 12th grades.
Kammerer said the majority of those surveyed said they see regular drug use as risky, but “more than half don't see a problem trying marijuana once or twice.”
She added, “If you see something, say something. It will take all of us to fight this battle.”
She stressed that there is no guarantee that you will continue to use if you have tried a drug or alcohol once or twice.
“If you drink alcohol, we aren't saying you will develop an addiction,” she said. “We're saying the best way to avoid an addiction is to not start in the first place.”
She added if a student at a Cumberland County area school district shows any signs of impairment, an official with the Drug & Alcohol Commission will evaluate the student and they will then be examined by medical staff at Holy Spirit-Geisinger.
Kammerer also said early intervention efforts include teaching lifelong skills in order to decrease the risk factors our youth will encounter through the rest of their lives.
She encouraged parents, grandparents and guardians to keep track of their medication, keep prescription medication in a locked box, and safely dispose of any unused prescriptions by using one of the county's 21 Drug Drop Boxes. Drop Boxes can be found in local police departments, like Shippensburg, Newville and Carlisle, as well as Cumberland County Human Services, the Cumberland County Courthouse, Shippensburg University and Dickinson College. She said adults should not share their prescriptions with anyone, and they should keep a low profile when it comes to their medication. “Your medications are your private business,” she added.
“Discuss prescription drug abuse with your children,” she urged. “And adjust the discussion as they get older.”
The Drug & Alcohol Commission will hold free Building Up Our Youth (BUOY) training for parents, caregivers, professionals, teachers and those who work with youth, from 6 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Oct. 16 and 23, in the 3rd Floor Conference Room D of the Human Services Building, 16 W. High St. in Carlisle. The series is designed specifically for adults to enhance their ability to respond both appropriately and effectively to any level of adolescent drug and alcohol involvement. The first session will touch on the stages of adolescent drug and alcohol use, and feature a display of drug-related paraphernalia and current drugs of abuse. The second session will discuss parental attitudes, developmental assets and protective factors, treatment options and community and school-based resources. For more information on early intervention, visit: www.iamthesolution.net.
Kammerer said the availability of Narcan and Naloxone to local police officers, EMS personnel and family members has helped to save thousands of lives from opiate overdoses in the state since 2014. The Narcan or Naloxone reverse the effects of all opiates in the system, waking the patient from their high and preventing death.
Some of the Newville Friendship Hose Co. EMS staff were in attendance at last Tuesday's presentation. They said patients are not happy when their high is reversed.
“It's amazing how fast they come back,” one said. “It takes all of the painkillers out of their system, and they don't like us for negating that high.”
An audience member asked if it is harmful to administer Naloxone if the patient is not suffering from an overdose, and Kammerer assured that it is not harmful to them.
Another audience member asked what kind of deterrent it causes for the users to have access to Narcan or Naloxone, if they can just take it home and get high. He asked why they aren't forced to go into detox for making the EMS rush to their home several times in one day to save them, with the taxpayers footing the bill.
Kammerer said those were great questions, and said there is legislation pending that addresses some of his concerns.
However, she noted that we can't force anyone to seek treatment, unless the situation involves children and youth, or probation.
“Those are great questions, and we really need to figure these things out,” she said.
Another EMS staff member noted that Narcan does not work on all overdoses. If a patient is overdosing on benzodiazepines, anxiety medication like Xanax, etc., it doesn't work. She also said people are now abusing a drug called Carfentanil, which is an elephant tranquilizer.
“You can't save someone whose is overdosing on something that is made for an animal that is five times their size,” she said. “We gave three doses of Narcan to a person once, and it still didn't save them. They are mixing drugs now. You don't know what they are mixing them with. That's our biggest fear. We don't know if we are going to go into a house and touch something, and have it absorb into our skin and make us sick or kill us.”
An audience member asked what if the patient was fined for the repeated Narcan doses. Another EMS staff member said if you throw them in jail, they won't have a job and won't be able to pay the fines, and when they get out, they will most likely go back to using because of the situation.
Kammerer said there needs to be adequate drug detox treatment for patients to help kick their addiction. Though many insurance companies limit the treatment to only 30 days, which is not long enough.
“We don't limit treatment for any other disease,” she added.
The addition of Drug Treatment Court in Cumberland County has been helping addicts get the help that they need. She said they are monitored very closely, and if they don't follow the rules, they are sent to jail. An opiate court was also introduced in the county six months ago that provides the treatment they need to get well and be contributing members of society.
The United Way of Carlisle is offering Naloxone training to community members from 9 to 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 10, at 145 S. Hanover St. Attendees will learn how to properly administer Naloxone if they encounter someone overdosing. They will receive free Naloxone and learn what to do after an overdose.
The YWCA of Carlisle, 301 G St., has also started a support group called Grands for grandparents, aunts, uncles and other family members raising children due to family crisis situations. Meetings are held from 6 to 7 p.m., the first Tuesday of each month. Visit: ywcacarlisle.org, for more information.
An audience member, Ashley, said she used to think it was the addict's fault for becoming addicted. However, three years ago, she started volunteering with a group from her church to conduct Bible lessons with female inmates at the Cumberland County Prison.
“Getting to know these women has touched my heart,” she said. “When they are addicted, they are willing to lose everything, even their children, their lives, because they are so wrapped up in their addiction. Most are not intentionally trying to kill themselves. These girls are so precious. The jail has re-entry and mentorship programs for volunteers. These inmates don't have a lot of good influences in their lives. By volunteering, you can actually help to change their lives. They need a friend. Someone to help teach them life skills.”
Ashley said there is an incredible opportunity to learn about God in the jail. She added at last Tuesday's presentation, the statistics are always shocking, but the information is a “good motivator for her and an incentive to be more driven to work with this population.”
“There's obviously a need,” she added. “The more you know, the more effective you are in helping others.”
“I think any chance to have a dialogue is a good use of time,” Kammerer said after the presentation. “There are so many varying issues and it affects people differently. Everyone here has valid concerns and we need to recognize the valid solutions with an overall goal to address the overall needs. We always appreciate the invitation to speak to different groups.”
Robin Tolan, a member of the church who organized the presentation, said she thought it was really important to bring the discussion to the community.
“It's an issue that's pervasive,” she said. “People think, 'Oh, it can't happen to us.' But, it can happen to anyone. I really want people to understand the need for treatment, prevention and intervention. I work in the mental health office and I know a lot of substance use can exacerbate any mental illness. It does impact us – friends, family members, even ourselves. People are in so much denial, and I think awareness is crucial.”
For more information, visit: https://www.ccpa.net/115/Drug-Alcohol-Commission.