A Long-term Solution to Addiction

There have been a lot of media accounts recently regarding the heroin epidemic in the nation and in the Mahoning Valley.

I hope we all realize that this is not a law enforcement problem or a school problem — it is a community problem. We are all affected by the problem of addiction, and must work together as a community to combat this issue. The solution will not be easy, nor will it be quick. Now is the time for a solution that is effective and sustainable.

I’d like to suggest a two-prong strategy in attempting a long-term solution to addiction in our area. 

The First Strategy: increase access to treatment for those who want it.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 23.5 million Americans need treatment for a substance abuse problem. Of these, only 2.6 million receive treatment. SAMHSA has identified inability to pay as the main reason those who wanted help could not get it.

The sad truth is that treatment is most accessible to those who can afford high-end treatment centers, and to low-income individuals who qualify for government assistance. While 15%-17% of functioning employed individuals abuse substances, the health insurance of the average employed person has little or no coverage for substance abuse treatment.

We are currently working with The Ohio Alliance of Recovery Providers (OARP) to raise awareness of businesses and legislators on this issue. If we are successful and can help give access to treatment for those who want it, we know that we will reduce crime in our communities, create a healthy workforce, and strengthen our school systems.

The Second Strategy: identify high-risk individuals, especially children.

We have finally learned how to identify children and adolescents who are at high risk for using and abusing illegal drugs. Years of research has made identifying high-risk kids relatively easy. Risk factors include family history of use, family conflicts, friends who use, low commitment to school, and availability of drugs. Other risk factors may be related to dealing with everyday challenges of adolescence such as bullying, a parental divorce, the breakup of a relationship, or the stress of an upcoming event. The goal is to identify these children and engage them in protective activities and programming so that they might have the tools to deal with their challenges without having to turn to drugs.

As a community, we can also ensure protective factors for our children. These factors include involvement in school-related activities, meaningful opportunities to contribute to the community, recognition of positive behaviors, open family dialogue, and the development of coping skills.

Meridian HealthCare developed and facilitates the PANDA Leaders Club, which is currently in 14 Valley schools. We focus on informative conversation and peer development to help children and teens make positive life choices. The PANDA Leaders Club allows us to get a grip on the issues kids are facing, and allows us to address them immediately, before they spiral out of control.

We need to come together as a community to solve this problem. We need to be able to recognize the warning signs of a high-risk child, we need to support initiatives that create protective factors for our youth, we need to provide opportunities for people who are motivated to easily access treatment, and we need to engage in private/public partnerships to promote prevention and recovery.

The solutions to the heroin epidemic are available right now. They are not simple, inexpensive or easily achieved. But the cost, in both dollars and human suffering, is much higher if we do not act now.