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Opioids: The painful truth

by | Jan 25, 2019 | Impact Stories

For years, the perception of high-drug-abuse communities was that they were urban, low-income and full of people making poor choices. The reality now is that the opioid epidemic has spread to reach communities of every kind – and Tennessee is a hotspot for opioid abuse.

We sat with Jamie Bergmann, vice president of Impact Policy and Advocacy at United Way of Greater Chattanooga, to learn more about this issue and why United Ways across the country will advocate on this critical issue in 2019.

How, exactly, does the opioid epidemic affect our local community?
Jamie: The sad truth is that, really, everyone is touched by the opioid epidemic in some way. Start with early childhood: when children are exposed to traumas linked to drug abuse in the home, those adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) affect their brain and emotional development for life. (Every 25 minutes, a baby is born with opioid withdrawal symptoms.) The sheer amount of children and families facing crises due to drug abuse is putting a strain on social and criminal justice systems like never before. It’s no secret that Tennessee is particularly problematic for opioids. In 2016, there were more opioid prescriptions than there were Tennesseans.

But, this isn’t just a problem for front-line intervention organizations. Large companies are realizing just how much the opioid epidemic affects their employee base. We’re seeing more and more employers wanting to offer rehabilitative assistance to any employees struggling with opioids. Locally, large insurance providers are realizing the fallout of the medical approach to opioids and are doing their part to limit access.

How did we get to the level of a true epidemic?
Jamie: My father was a physician and a pharmacist. He remembers when pain killers were not produced in-mass like the synthetic drugs available today. It was a typical medical intervention to prescribe a 30-day supply after a surgery or other pain diagnosis. Now, you’ll get 3-10 pills. Medically, that isn’t enough to reach a manageable pain level that can be treated with over-the-counter drugs. This causes people to turn to the streets or ‘doctor shop’ in order to get the pills they need. At that point, it’s easy to reach addiction.

Clearly, there’s a lot to be said for the medical community’s role in the supply of opioids into the public. But, this is a bigger issue that has evolved beyond doctors. There’s been a stigma around drug addiction for decades in our society. Until we acknowledge this as a problem for all sectors of society and make it a community, state and federal priority to get people help, we’ll never move the needle on this issue. That’s really the good news here. The problem is serious, but this is a great way for us all to start working toward solutions.

What can we do to start solving this problem?
Jamie: A big area of focus in my role at United Way will be working with other Tennessee nonprofit, business and government representatives to advocate collectively for policies that will meet our shared goals to prevent the opioid epidemic from growing and intervening for people who need help now. Both the private and the public sectors are crucial allies for us on issues like this that affect what we care about most: the welfare of families in our community. There is a lot of potential for what we could do when we inform policymakers about the root causes in our area with data, partner feedback and coordinated advocacy on this issue.