Solutions against opioid addiction require a willingness to work together
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The U.S. is in the midst of the worst drug epidemic this country has ever seen, but you would never know it watching the final debate of the presidential campaign. The topic was addressed briefly in terms of increasing border patrols, but the problem runs much deeper than that, and the solutions must be found right in our own communities, and our schools. These solutions require innovation, determination and a willingness to work together for the duration, eventually finding light at the end of a tunnel where only darkness can currently be seen.

Every day we hear of another overdose death — seventy-eight a day in this country — and it continues to increase despite efforts in every state to combat the crisis. We need our new commander-in-chief to be in this battle with us to establish funding and expand programming that works.  We should be talking about increasing support for school- and community-based primary prevention.  

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In the midst of this drug epidemic, often called the opioid crisis, there are glimmers of hope and a model with proven independently obtained results — that could be replicated and save lives.

Gosnold, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit focused on prevention, treatment, innovation and supporting recovery, administers prevention programs in 20 schools, and one of those schools was surveyed by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Systems Administration (SAMHSA) as part of the federal government’s Drug Free Communities Support Program. Surveys thought to contain dishonest answers are thrown out.

Pride Surveys compiles the results. They are reliable. More than 800 8th through 12th grade students in the Falmouth school system on Cape Cod completed the survey, which covered eight years during which primary prevention programs were in place. 

The declines were dramatic from just two years ago. Staggering, actually. Alcohol use, for the past thirty days, among students was down from 35 percent to 23 percent and this compares to 34 percent among students in other Massachusetts schools.  Nicotine use was down from 11 percent to 5 percent; and marijuana use was reported down from 28 percent to 22 percent. Use of prescription pain relievers and heroin, as well as prescription stimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin, also trended down.

These heartening results are due to a focused, school- and community-based primary prevention program. For the past eight years the Falmouth community has been engaged in a comprehensive initiative to reduce the effect of drugs and alcohol.  The initiative has brought together various sectors of the community — health, education, business, government, and the general public — in a coordinated and thoughtful way.

Gosnold and the Falmouth Prevention Partnership have been innovative in a concerted effort to change the culture regarding how we use and think about legal and illegal substances.  Collaborations with the Cape Cod Baseball League produced “Playing Above the Influence,” a pre-game prevention event targeted to kids.

The “Sticker Shock” campaign brought liquor store owners together to promote the “no sales to minors” campaign. The “Parents who Host, Lose the Most” campaign and the Pre-Prom assembly focuses on reducing alcohol use during graduation and prom season.  The “Lock Your Meds” initiative urges parents to lock prescription medications to avoid inadvertent use by youngsters.  And, the “Drug Take Back Days” in collaboration with the Falmouth Police Department is an attempt to get unwanted medications out of circulation.

Support groups for family members facing addiction; grief groups for those who have lost kids; and training programs for middle school families, all bring hope, awareness, and skills to families that enable them to talk to their kids.  And, along with these community-wide efforts, Gosnold has mental health and addiction counselors in the elementary, middle, and high schools. 

Taken alone, none of these campaigns or events will change a culture. But consistently reinforced over time and inclusive of all segments of the community, they absolutely can. Prevention programs are often maligned because they don’t produce immediate results and communities give up on them too quickly. What Falmouth has shown is if you stick with it and think long term, prevention works. We need it now more than ever. We must work to find ways to fund and sustain this type of substantive solution.‎

It will be a challenge to replicate this model in more schools. School and community-based prevention efforts do not normally create sensational, compelling headlines that move politicians to action. But the results of our initiative in Falmouth did. The positive results took hard work, commitment and perseverance over many years.  But we now know it is possible and have the data to back it up.

Funding school-and community-based primary prevention is an investment in our future. Primary prevention will alleviate the costs of drug addiction treatment and mental health services for the generation of youth coming of age during the opioid crisis.

Let’s put genuine focus on prevention efforts in our schools and communities. If we do not, we are ignoring an opportunity to provide the tools young people need to avoid falling victim to the crisis of addiction gripping our nation. Failure to act now will deprive a generation of young people from living out their potential while the costs associated with addiction and mental health treatment will continue spiraling out of control.

Raymond V. Tamasi is President of Gosnold, a renowned nonprofit drug treatment, recovery and mental health center based in Massachusetts. He was recently awarded the National Council on Behavioral Health’s ‘Visionary Leadership Award’ for his tireless innovation and leadership in the field of prevention and recovery, and has developed a comprehensive prevention division including the implementation of a school-based counseling program.


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