The statistics are staggering; the cycle of abuse, often deadly. Perhaps never before has a nation’s attempt to avoid pain caused its people so much agony. The opioid epidemic kills more than 100 people each day in America. Since 2001, it has cost our country more than a trillion dollars. Right here in Union County, the Sheriff’s Office has seen more than a thousand-percent increase in heroin overdoses and a sixfold increase in heroin deaths since 2010. Drug-related arrests over the same period are up 365 percent.
So, what can we do?
“To break this cycle, we all must work together. It is not just a law enforcement, emergency services, pharmaceutical industry, medical or criminal justice problem,” says Tony Underwood, the Sheriff’s public information officer. “It is a community problem, and the only way to curb the trend is through education and awareness.”
Underwood, who worked as an SBI agent for 26 years, says the opioid epidemic is “much more deadly and serious than drug trends from the past.”
He has been coordinating opioid-crisis information sessions at Union County high schools and will help expand the conversation at Wingate’s event. The Engaged Citizenship session will include a veteran from the state’s Crime Lab who will talk about drug-abuse trends of the past three decades. The audience will hear from local law enforcement officers, court officials, emergency medical providers and school employees, each shedding light on the problem from their point of view. They will also hear from pharmacists from the Wingate University School of Pharmacy and from a state lawmaker. Perhaps most importantly, they will hear local residents’ personal stories of opioid addiction, and get a chance to discuss what actions they can take to help friends and loved ones avoid the same path or make their escape if they are already in the grip of addiction.
Those who attend the free event will have an opportunity to ask questions of presenters during the reception following the event and will get practical help with learning how to spot signs of opioid abuse in those around them.
“We hope to have a bedroom of sorts set up in the Helms Art Gallery of the Batte Center,” explains Jeff Atkinson, assistant vice president for Wingate’s Ballantyne campus and coordinator for the Engage Citizenship series. “Our law enforcement and EMS partners will be on hand to tell parents what types of clues to look for that could be signs of an opioid problem.”
He hopes that parents who have not been able to attend a session at their local high school or who want more information will come to Wingate’s event, which he expects will attract engaged citizens from across the region.
Underwood said Union County Sheriff Eddie Cathey has been on the leading edge of educating citizens about opioids through partnerships with the public schools, churches and civic groups.
“We are partnering with subject matter experts in a variety of disciplines who see the devastation caused by this epidemic in an effort to prevent the next addiction from ever occurring,” Underwood said. “We are excited to be part of this program at Wingate University and welcome every opportunity to educate students and others about this problem.”
The Batte Center will open at 3:30 p.m. on March 18, with the forum to begin at 4 p.m. Admission is free, and a reception will follow in the Batte Center Rotunda.