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.


Employee Assistance Program — a Smart Investment

What is an Employee Assistance Program? I get this question a lot from business owners in the community who have heard the term but aren’t exactly sure what it entails. I tell them that an Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) is a real asset for many organizations.

You’ve heard the saying “Happy employees make productive employees,“ right? An EAP Program is proof of this. A recent study (Global Business and Economic Round Table on Addictions and Mental Health) shows that on a daily basis, one in five employees is being negatively affected by a personal issue like addiction, grief, divorce, care-giving, stress, depression, etc. EAP Services are the first-line response to help employees and their families deal with personal problems that might adversely impact their work performance, health and well-being. 

Employee Assistance Programs are completely confidential for employees and their family members, and usually include short-term counseling to help address these life stressors. In a study done by HR Magazine, 44% of employees say they come to work at least once a quarter too stressed to be effective. Another study (The American Institute of Stress) shows that companies lose as much as $688 per employee annually due to unscheduled absenteeism . 

In some work environments, employees may be reluctant to seek help from their supervisors because they worry it will negatively affect the supervisor’s view of their job performance. That’s why EAP services are designed as a free resource that allows employees to talk to someone and address their problems without their boss or company knowing about it.

In a recent study (HR Magazine), 49% of employees admitted they lose an hour of productivity or more each day due to stress. To help address these issues, EAP Professionals can provide consulting and training to managers and supervisors that helps them identify warning signs in their employees. By providing these managers with the tools they need to identify these issues, a problem can be addressed early on, before their behavior begins to affect employees’ work. 

In times of grief and unexpected events, such as death, natural disasters, company accidents and other emergencies, an Employee Assistance Program can partner with a company to provide counseling and consulting. They can help the staff process and understand what has happened and help sort out their feelings and emotions, which can be unpredictable and powerful.

Right now, 90% of Fortune 500 Companies participate in an EAP (Public Health Reports), while only 9% of companies with fewer than 50 employees participate in an EAP (Bureau of Labor Statistics). When companies are asked why they don’t offer this program, most say it’s due mainly to the cost. But what they overlook is the return they get from better employee productivity, less absenteeism, reduced workplace accidents, reduced employee turnover and related replacement costs. They also see reduced healthcare costs and more efficient use of healthcare through early identification, care management and recovery efforts. This makes EAP Programs a smart and profitable investment for most organizations. 

EAP services also leverage the value of the organization’s investment in their workforce. A program like EAP can help by improving employee engagement, strengthening employees’ and dependents’ skills for successfully responding to life’s challenges, offering employees short-term problem resolution services, or referring employees and dependents to mental health treatment services. This develops employee and manager competencies in managing workplace stress and improving work team performance. 

A proactive Employee Assistance Program can enhance an organization’s strengths and help it complete its mission. An EAP Program can help you build healthy, happy and productive employees — and that’s always a smart investment. 

The Stages of Change

Making a major lifestyle change is never easy. But success is more likely if you understand that change is a process, not a one-time decision. 

A weight-loss program is good example of this. You don’t flip a switch and suddenly eat less and healthier and lose weight. It’s a longer process than that. Sometimes it takes a while to get started because you don’t admit you need it. You look in the mirror and focus on the thin parts of your body. Or simply put the weight-loss issue out of your mind. 

But you start to think about dieting because your clothes are getting tight, you have a big event coming up, or your doctor suggested it for health reasons.

So you begin researching diet plans and foods. You set a start date and mentally prepare for it. Then you jump into your diet and are determined to stick with it — and you do great for the next two months. 

But then a special occasion crops up and you slip.  That leads to a binge and gets you off-track. Pretty soon, you’re back to your old eating habits. 

But although you’re disappointed you didn’t stick with it, you saw some bright spots. You were able to maintain weight loss for a while. 

You learn what triggers your slip-ups, and you use that knowledge to get back on track. You realize that setbacks and restarting points are stages of the change you wanted. 

So you try again and again, until finally you stick with it. You went through many ups and downs, many stages, to get there — but eventually, you were successful. 

In addiction treatment, we call this six-step process “The Stages of Change.” And whether weight loss or recovery from addiction is the goal, you go through these stages:

  1. PRE-CONTEMPLATION —you’re not aware or refuse to believe a change is necessary (sometimes called “denial”).
  2. CONTEMPLATION — you recognize there is a problem and consider doing something about it. 
  3. PREPARATION — you decide to change, and you’re getting ready to do so. 
  4. ACTION — you take steps to deal with the problem.
  5. MAINTENANCE — you’ve handled the initial challenges, and work to avoid a relapse.
  6. RELAPSE — the last stage of change, and typically the most misunderstood. Many people view relapse as failure. But relapse is the result of just not getting it right…yet. 

Change, especially a major lifestyle change like breaking free from addiction, is like learning to ride a bike. You don’t typically get it right on the first try. You fall a few times, and maybe even get hurt. But you get back up and try again. And eventually you figure it out and keep riding.

At Meridian, our staff is trained to understand the Stages of Change, and how to help someone who is struggling move through the stages. 

We also use “motivational interviewing” — a form of collaborative conversation — to strengthen self-motivation and commitment to change. 

Our experience has shown that you can’t force someone into the first stage of change — or into the next. So we talk to them about their struggle and help them discover which stage they are in at the moment. Then we help them recognize when they’re ready to move on to the next stage. 

This is not a fast process, and it can be frustrating to family members, friends and employers. We expect the person who is suffering from addiction to immediately recognize that they need help. That rarely happens. 

But an experienced treatment provider can emphasize and encourage internal thought that helps them realize they need and want change. At that point, they willingly enter the first of the Stages of Change.

Parents Can Greatly Influence Children’s Choices

Your kids listen to you. Wait…what? It’s true. When it comes to the subject of drugs and alcohol, your kids are paying attention to what you’re saying.

And according to JoinTogether.org, statistics prove that kids who learn about the risks of drugs and alcohol abuse from their parents are up to 50% less likely to use than those who do not. 

Parents from all over the Valley call me when they’re worried about their kids using. “I think he’s doing drugs, what can I do?” they ask. “She’s sleeping all the time, what should I do?” My answer is simply, “Talk to your kids.”

It may be an uncomfortable topic, but just talking with them about the dangers can open the floodgates. You can be their best resource. You may find you have nothing to worry about, or you may find your child needs some help. 

SAMSHA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) reiterates that building a close relationship with your children will increase the likelihood they come to you for help in making decisions that impact their health and well-being. 

Teens say they rely on adults in their lives more than anyone else to help them make tough decisions and provide them with good advice. Who would have thought?

At Meridian, we believe that preventing addictions starts with teaching kids, from a young age, that drugs and alcohol can have devastating effects. At age 6 children know that drinking alcohol is only for adults, but from ages 9-13 they begin to think it’s OK if they try it. That’s why it’s never too early to begin the conversation about harmful behaviors.

When talking with your kids about this touchy subject, it’s important to remain calm, share your concerns and above all —listen. Let them discuss their fears, but at the same time celebrate their successes. You can help them get through the tough stuff by talking to them about what is positive in their life.

Talking is important, but there are other steps you should consider also. Set limits with clear consequences, and always monitor your child’s behavior and attitude. 

Consider getting help from professionals. Some agencies in the area, including Meridian, offer free consultations. Parents can even use this resource when they aren’t sure how to discuss a problem with their children.

In an earlier column I mentioned our in-school program, PANDA Leaders Club, that empowers kids to live healthy, drug-free lifestyles. We’ve also organized summits to discuss the issues our kids face and get more people involved in the fight.

At a recent meeting, parents from the Valley acknowledged that they have seen drugs everywhere — in every school, every neighborhood. 

Searching for ways to connect with our kids, the group came up with some suggestions. Have dinner with your kids. Talk to them about what’s going on in their lives. Take advantage of the time spent in the car with your kids on your way to soccer practices and dance recitals. 

I realize that it’s viewed as something from Leave It to Beaver, but a family dinner even once or twice a week can really help get children engaged with their families.

The math is simple: the more time you spend with your kids, the less likely they are to try drugs and alcohol. And the more you’re together talking, the more likely it is they will discuss problems with you before the problems get out of control.

It’s simple — but it’s not easy. Starting to talk to your kids about these issues is almost as tough as talking to them about sex. You’re going to see a fair share of eye-rolling in the beginning, that’s for sure. But once you’ve established a regular, no-pressure dialogue, you’ll be honestly able to say, “My kids listen to me!” More importantly, they’ll be able to say, “My parents listen to me.” 

Drug Testing Doesn’t Always Require Termination

Some business owners and managers fear random drug testing almost as much as the employees who know they’re likely to fail the tests. 

Why? Because they believe the employee who failed the test has to be to terminated. 

If you’ve ever participated in a firing, you know it can be a very unpleasant and stressful situation. It’s tough on the terminated employee, of course — but also on the person doing the firing. And often, morale in the workplace drops like a rock.

Worst of all, when a reasonably reliable employee is fired for failing a random drug screen, the company loses the time and money that was spent recruiting and training the employee. That loss is amplified when more is spent recruiting, hiring and training a replacement.

So should random drug screens be reduced? Of course not. In fact, it’s just the exact opposite — businesses and organizations need more random drug testing, not less.

Research shows that, on average, 15–17% of employees in U.S. companies abuse substances. Ignoring those facts would be dangerous and risky. 

Drugs and alcohol in the workplace are your problem when you’re running a business — whether you recognize it or not. It will only get worse if you bury your head in the sand.


Use and abuse of drugs and alcohol by employees can cause negative effects, not just on the user and his or her family, but also on the workplace as a whole. 

Alcohol and drug users take three times as many sick days, are more likely to injure themselves or others, and are five times more likely to file workers’ compensation claims.

Those extra sick days and increases in workers’ compensation claims cost the company money and reduce its ability to pay higher wages and benefits. Paying lower wages and benefits reduces morale and makes it harder to recruit good employees.

Employees who use and abuse alcohol and drugs can also negatively affect the performance and attitude of co-workers. That’s because co-workers are often put in danger, injured, or must work harder to re-do or cover for a substance-abusing co-worker.


Smart business owners and managers use random drug tests as a risk management tool. It helps identify a problem before it gets out of control and has a negative affect on employee job performance or the business’s bottom line. And a good testing program can build stronger, healthier, more loyal employees.


If you use random drug testing, what other option do you have besides firing employees who fail a test? 

You can get them treatment. And you can get them back to work eventually. Treatment is the right thing to do for many reasons. You’ll be helping the employee and his or her family. But you’ll also be helping your company. 

There is practical proof that an employee you send to treatment often becomes more conscientious and loyal after receiving treatment and returning to work. Workplace morale often increases also as other employees notice the change in the employee and the company’s loyalty to the employee.

What about the financial aspect? It’s pretty clear that getting an employee into treatment will often cost less than recruiting, hiring and training a new employee. 

The owner of a well-known Valley business has been longtime client of Worklife by Meridian, our workforce health and wellness arm. Our client believes random drug tests make a better workplace environment. 

“Random drug testing is an asset, not a hindrance to our organization. The employees who have failed drug screens and have gone into treatment usually come out as better employees — some of the best I have,” says our client. “It’s saved me a lot of money to drug test and help get them into treatment, rather than firing them and hiring and training someone one else.”

The bottom line? For a better company, keep up the random drug testing. If an employee fails a test, consider treatment instead of termination. You’ll both be glad you did.

Students Learn About Drugs and Alcohol the Hard Way

Every day at Meridian we have conversations that normally end with us shaking our heads and saying “It was never this bad when we were kids.” Sure, there was the occasional bully in the lunchroom or party that got busted for alcohol use, but never to the extent of what kids are facing today. 

We know that our school-aged kids are facing drug and alcohol issues like never before. And now with social media everywhere, not only is the use and abuse being made public, it’s also being advertised by the users themselves. 

According to CASA (The National Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse), in 2009 more than one-third of teens said they could get prescription drugs to get high within a day; nearly one in five teens could get them within an hour.

Locally, the numbers are just as staggering. A study conducted by The Coalition for a Drug-Free Mahoning County in April 2012 shows that 28% of 11th grade students have consumed alcohol in the past 30 days, while 19% admitted to using marijuana and 6% have misused prescription medication. And frighteningly, 3.5% of 11th graders have used heroin. 

Kids don’t typically realize the damage that drug and alcohol use can do to their lives. But according to CASA, it can be life-altering.

Substance use interferes with all of the indicators of school success — attendance, academic performance, promotion and graduation, as well as achievement on standardized tests including college entrance exams. It increases the likelihood of dropout, suspension and expulsion, and adversely affects student academic performance by physically damaging areas of the brain involved in learning and memory.

Students who smoke, drink or use drugs are at greater risk for failure, absenteeism, truancy and dropping out of school. We’re recognizing that these interferences from alcohol and drug abuse span all areas of our community, with no geographic or economic boundaries. 

It’s not surprising then, given all these statistics, that parents, teachers and even some law enforcement officials feel helpless. “What can we do?” they ask. 

That’s a good question. How do we challenge this drug and alcohol problem? Let’s face it…once a kid gets caught up in this world, it’s very tough to pull him or her free. 

So why don’t we attack the problem before it begins? That’s right; we can focus on preventing drug and alcohol use and abuse. 

Not only does the prevention approach make sense, it works. One very successful prevention effort is the PANDA Leaders Club — which was started over 40 years ago and has spread like wildfire in the last few years. 

PANDA helps kids make positive life choices and provides an outlet for middle school and high school kids to safely express their feelings and discuss issues affecting them. There are clubs in 13 Valley schools, and over 19 schools participate in PANDA activities throughout the year. 

At PANDA meetings, kids discuss stressors like bullying, depression, suicide, unhealthy relationships, peer pressure, family dynamics and more. In other words, the types of problems that could lead to using drugs or alcohol as a quick fix.

You might be surprised to learn that even though prevention programs like PANDA save healthcare costs, taxpayer dollars and even families, it’s very difficult to get funding for them. After all, who wants to pay for a problem that doesn’t exist yet?

Fortunately some businesses and organizations — including PNC Bank, Panera Bread and O’Charley’s, Northern States Metals and Comprehensive Psychiatry Group — have stepped up to partner with Meridian to help sponsor PANDA in Valley schools. We’re hoping others do the same.

And while PANDA has been a successful tool for use in the schools, the problem does not begin or end in the schools. We need to get the word out and work in more schools as well as other parts of the community. 

If you want to learn more or lend a hand, please visit www.meridiancommunitycare.org. Prevention may be the only way we can avoid the fight and still win the war. 

You have an addiction problem…we all do

Addiction doesn’t affect you or impact your daily life, right? After all, you’re not an addict.

The fact is, untreated addiction negatively impacts the lives of everyone in our community — usually in ways you’ve never considered. 

In my work at Meridian HealthCare, I see the negative impact every day — law enforcement officials frustrated by the rise in drug-related crimes, school administrators worried about the availability of drugs to their students, and pastors concerned about the collapse of families.

I see medical professionals exasperated by the flood of people with addictions in emergency rooms, business leaders struggling with increasing healthcare costs, and new employees who can’t pass pre-employment drug tests.

As misuse of prescription drugs and heroin is dramatically increasing, state funding for treatment is decreasing and standard health insurance policies make it difficult for a working person to get treatment.

The result is a perfect storm of more people who need treatment — and fewer people who have access to it. So the negative impact on the community increases.

Studies show that 80 percent of the nation’s adult inmates and juvenile arrestees either committed their offenses while high, stole to buy drugs, violated alcohol or drug laws, had a history of substance abuse/addiction, or shared some mix of these characteristics.

Drugs and alcohol are becoming more prevalent in all of our schools. It doesn’t matter which school district — addiction is there. In 2009, more than one third of teens said they could get prescription drugs to get high within a day; nearly one in five teens could get them within an hour.

For our community to enjoy an economic recovery, we must have a healthy workforce. Studies show that on average, one employee with an unaddressed substance abuse disorder can cost an employer $7,000 per year in lost productivity and healthcare cost.

Untreated addiction leads to workers who call off, co-workers who have to work harder or redo work to cover for the substance using co-worker, a loss in productivity, and increased healthcare costs.

Everyone’s healthcare costs are driven up by untreated addiction. Because untreated addiction sends people to the hospital. Annually, 2.3 million hospital admissions involve a substance abuse disorder — at a cost of $2 billion nationally.

So in fact, we all have an addiction problem. And it’s leading to increased crime, rising healthcare costs and a struggling economy. It’s negatively affecting the education and safety of our children and the ability of families to stay strong in the midst of day-to-day challenges.

Here’s the kicker: treatment works. Prevention programs work. So why is access to to these lifesaving opportunities being restricted?

We must work together as a society to address these issues…find ways to open up access to treatment and prevention programs…encourage recovery…and support positive life choices.

Each month, in this column I will present the specific challenges and opportunities we have regarding addiction issues.

Together, we’ll explore ways to work together, address our addiction problem and improve our quality of life.