Local communities combat heroin epidemic

Dana Miller

Neighboring cities continue to fight not only heroin, but other forms of substance abuse through community and school programs to educate about prevention, how to get help and why it is a problem.

In Portage County, so far in 2016, 28 people have died from an accidental drug overdose. Twenty-four of those were a result from opioids, according to the Mental Health and Recovery Board of Portage County.

Last year in 2015, Karyn Hall, director of community relations at the Mental Health and Recovery Board of Portage County, said there had been 30 accidental drug overdoses.

With only a few months to go until this year ends, Hall says they anticipate the number of overdoses to exceed last year’s.

Craig Peeps of Kent Fire Department said he had already seen an influx in heroin related calls before this school year even commenced.

KFD’s Chief John Tosko assures that of those calls, a majority are not from Kent State students.

Since the beginning of this year, Tosko says they have administered Narcan 33 times for overdoses. On average, he says they will receive about two to three calls a week — at least — in regards to a possible overdose.

To help, Hall said that all Portage County schools have two programs in their curriculum; Too Good For Drugs, which started in 2014, and Project Alert, which started in 2007.

Both programs started in Ravenna schools and are funded through the Mental Health and Recovery Board, with a collaboration through Townhall II providing instructors.

“We want to do substance abuse prevention, more encompassing, instead of just focusing on one particular drug,” Hall said. “They need to learn the skills to cope with problems.  Those are the foundation of how they will then resist the drugs and alcohol.”

Too Good For Drugs, which lasts 10 weeks, has prevention specialists from Townhall II instructing the students on making healthy choices. Last year it only included teaching in kindergarten and third-grade classrooms.

Project ALERT is also a drug prevention curriculum for middle schoolers.

Too Good For Drugs is now taught in kindergarten through fifth grade, and sixth through eighth has Project ALERT.

Hall added that the response from schools wanting the programs in their buildings were overwhelming, therefore the recovery board invested more in the program three full-time specialists to teach.

“I observed a class a week ago, a third-grade class, and students really enjoyed it,” Hall said. “I talked to the teacher and she thought it was a really good program that her school decided to utilize.”

Halls says she thinks these programs will help in all of Portage County schools, especially talking to the younger students about the dangers before they encounter it themselves in the streets.

Within the Portage County community, the Health District, in collaboration with the Mental Health and Recovery Board, has had Project DAWN, which stands for Deaths Avoided With Naxolone, in action since September 2015. It is a community based naxolone distribution program, said Becky Lehman, director of Health Education.

As it’s reached it’s one year of being in effect, Lehman says she has seen an increase of community members carrying Project DAWN kits.

The kits can be carried by participants who complete a Project DAWN class, and inside they include, two needle syringes with naxolone, two atomizers for nasal application, one face shield for CPR and instructions.

In Summit County, there was a reported number of 323 times that Narcan was used since Jan. 1, according to a press release from Stow Safety Forces.

Stow Police officer Anne Stirm documented a total of 11 fatalities and 36 treatable overdoses in which Naracan, an opioid-blocking drug, was administered, since Jan. 1 to Sept. 26. These overdoses included heroin, fentanyl, oxycodone and unknown narcotics, says Stirm.

Stirm said the Stow community is pulling together to try and find some answers.

Due to the fearing increase in opiate use in the surrounding cities, Operation Second Chance, a program meant to help opiate addicts get treatment in the Stow and Munroe Falls area, is in the works after the Stow Police, Fire Department and the Community Health Center have collaborated.

“Most importantly, we want our citizens to be safe and healthy. If a person does not know where to turn, we are now equipped to connect them with the resources they need,” said Stow Mayor Sara Kline in a July press release.

Stirm says an addict will be referred to the Community Health Center and will be directed for treatment and recovery, but in some cases it would be rare that someone would willingly come and ask for help. 

“I think it’s a worthy program, but it will reach a small number because there are a few exceptions,” Stirm said. “If I am working the road, stop a car (and) the person has a needle (with) heroin in front of me, I’m not going to make a referral, right now they are going to get charged.”

The Community Health Center has been aiding addiction treatment since 1974 and has recently documented a 40 percent increase in the amount of patients trying to get help with opiate addiction, according to the Stow Safety Forces press release.

While improvements may seem intangible at the moment because of how bad the epidemic is, Stirm said these programs can do no harm. 

“Anything that doesn’t create more harm or increase abuse, it can perhaps make a difference, and we have to try it,” she said. 

Akron police officer Jack Duncan said it ties up a lot of their time. 

“As far as regular patrol goes, it (heroin) is so frequent in Akron, some of my friends on a shift have gone to the same house two to three times in a night. It’s really rampant,” Duncan said.

Duncan also said he has seen a wide range in who is affected.

“It’s a pretty strong effect from across the board,” Duncan says. “From the poorest communities, to the richer ones.”

He adds that the obvious concern has been local and getting residents treatment.

“We’re not really charging anybody as much anymore,” Duncan said. “In the past couple of months, it’s been more going with them to the hospital and making sure they’re OK.”

Duncan said moving forward, he would like to see our country not just look at this epidemic as a criminal act, instead, treat the victims and users as someone with a sickness by educating them and providing rehabilitation instead of incarceration.

Dana Miller is the diversity editor, contact her at [email protected].