A community conversation on the opioid epidemic

On September 28th, at Grand Island High School, a community conversation was held on the issue of the opioid epidemic. The epidemic has touched every part of society. 

Dr. Celia Spacone
facilitated the program that
encouraged the community
to talk about combatting
the opioid epidemic and
saving lives.

There were five speakers, each of whom discussed the epidemic from their own perspectives. Combined, they presented a complete picture of a dangerous epidemic that continues to take lives daily. According to statistics, someone in the United States dies from an accidental drug overdose every ten minutes.

Some statistics

  • The opioid epidemic affects people between the ages of sixteen and eighty-three.
  • The majority of deaths are between the ages of twenty to twenty-nine and thirty to thirty-nine. Cheryll Moore (Erie County Department of Health): We are losing a whole generation.
  • The average victim is a 38 year old male
  • Between 2012 and 2014, many deaths were due to prescription drugs.
  • Now: the deaths are due to to fentanyl, mixed with heroin.

A recovering addict’s story

Alex Neutz, a graduate of Grand Island High School, is in recovery. In high school and at the State University of New York at Buffalo, he played football. He was a wide receiver, who set records in both high school and on his division one college team.

“I come from a loving and supportive family. The pressure that I put on myself led to my issues. If I made four touchdowns, I wanted to make five. If I caught six passes, I wanted to catch seven.”

“I broke my wrist as a sophomore. Pain killers took away my physical pain, my depression, and my anxiety. It numbs you from the world. I didn’t make the NFL (National Football League). I got cut. Pain killers will numb me. It’s OK as long as I have those.”

“I was depressed. I had severe anxiety. I was never happy. You are never comfortable with yourself.”

People in the throes of addiction can “get help, do drugs, or commit suicide.”

“On my 25th birthday, my parents intervened. I went to rehab.”

“We have to get rid of the stigma of drug addiction and mental illness. I didn’t plan on breaking my wrist. It’s not bad people. It’s amazing people with amazing families. I talk at schools. We need to focus on the first day that you started, not the last day.”

“I am at a good place in my life.”

The role of the schools

Dr. Brian Graham, Superintendent of Schools, Grand Island, New York: As principal of an elementary school in West Seneca, he observed that children “were on a path to choose risky behavior in fourth, fifth, and sixth grade. It had an impact on me as an educational leader.”

“We had someone like Alex talk about choices and about the disease of drug addiction. We work with kids who are in crisis. We work with a prevention focus.  In the school district, we have six counselors, two psychologists, and one social worker. We focus on physical, mental, and social wellness in seventh grade. In eighth grade, we dig deeper into substance abuse. Mental health is covered. We have a partnership with parents.”

“The post prom event was a safe place to come to after prom. More than 200 students came. It helps them make good choices.”

Recognizing the signs of addiction

Michael Ranney, Erie County Commissioner of Mental Health: “Addiction is a disease. Warning signs include isolation, nodding off, needing more time to go to the bathroom, changes in behavior, hunger and cravings, an inability to abstain, inattention to hygiene, weight loss, and missing objects.”

“The consequences are harsh. Loss of life, home, and job.” 

Help available includes a peer on call, a family support navigator, detox, medication assisted treatment, a prevention focus.

“Medication works and it saves lives. Don’t suffer from painful withdrawal. Ask for medication.”

A mother’s story

Debra Smith is a parent and advocate. Her son Nathaniel passed away on September 15th, 2015, at the age of 26. This is how she remembers her son.

“I rocked him and sang to him and taught him his ABCs. I took him to the zoo and to Boy Scouts. He played baseball and soccer.” He graduated from St. Francis High School with a regent’s diploma with advanced designation. He went to Canisius College and was a pre-med student.

“He was very mature. He was the last person anyone expected to get the disease. Many of us experienced a medical treatment that went horribly wrong. He had plans, hopes, and dreams. He was the son that every family wanted and should have.”

In 2011, Nathaniel was hit by a car in a hit and run accident. In 2014, Nathaniel had surgery for a kidney stone that was embedded in his ureter. Nathaniel’s kidney stones were an inherited trait.

Pain killers were prescribed. Nathaniel became addicted to opioids. “The family dynamic changes. We are all a little confused.”

What can we do to help our loved ones who are suffering with addiction?

“Educate yourselves. Addiction is biological. It is not a choice. Learn the biological effects that the medication has on your brain. Identify a plan. Use the language of love.”

“Keep them motivated and involved in supportive family events. Tell them what you love about them. Tell them that you miss them. They hate themselves. There is still that drive inside themselves. You need drugs to make yourself feel normal. Use words without accusations.”

“The drug is powerful, quick, and lethal.”

“Let’s fix this. Let’s work together. You are scared and I am afraid that I will lose you.”

“As I stood in front of my son’s casket, I was so sorry that he was gone. He was robbed of his life. I don’t regret how much I love my son.”

How do we save lives?

Debra Smith: “The drug is too lethal, too powerful, and too quick for tough love or loving detachment. Words can be weapons. Choose wisely.”

“Research addiction. There are medically assisted treatments. Clean out your medicine cabinets. Research the effects of medication.”

“Get trained in Narcan. Put narcan in the backpacks.”

Narcan training works
Cheryll Moore: “If we didn’t have all of these people saving lives, we’d have more deaths. It’s a disease. We have to talk about it. We’re still here. We saved tons of people. They can go to treatment and be with us.”

The next Narcan trainings in Grand Island are:
October 23rd: Grand Island High School
November 16th: Grand Island Fire Hall

Please check with the school district and with the town for more information about the trainings.

3 thoughts on “A community conversation on the opioid epidemic”

  1. Jane Porterfield

    Thanks for sharing this information, Alice. I'm in recovery myself and my youngest son has been in recovery for close to three years.

    More, more & even more education on the opioid epidemic is needed. Too many people are in denial (it could never happen to my child) and the stigma associated with addiction and mental health needs to change. Too many people consider addiction a choice or a moral issue, or a flaw in parenting. None of these is true. The addiction is in the brain and is a disease.

    Again, thanks for sharing this post. It will help spread the knowledge that needs to be known.

  2. I've shared this on Twitter and Facebook. This has happened to people I know. Whether we know it or not, we are all in this in some way. If it didn't happen to us, it could have happened to us. I took opiods for a brief time for a back injury. There but for the grace…….

  3. Cerebrations.biz

    I fear we need a completely different approach to our drug problem. As soon as one drug is prohibited, an analogue is produced (that skirts the regulations). And, incarcerating whole generations of people solves no problems, either.
    I think we should make drugs legal- and tax them. Yes, I am normally against taxing prescription drugs, but taxing those drugs that are abused is a way to possible stop their abuse. Oh- and those tax collections? They should be devoted to drug/alcohol abuse centers.

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