Effort, led by Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office, is in response to county’s record number of opioid-related deaths in 2016
The statistic was repeated multiple times by Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek.
“I’ve been in law enforcement for 30-plus years and I can tell you the stuff keeps me up at night,” the sheriff said to an audience of parents, students and concerned residents at Wayzata High School. “In 2016, Hennepin County saw 153 opioid-related deaths.”
The record-high number, which represents a 39 percent increase over 2015, was the impetus for the sheriff’s office’s #NOverdose campaign.
“We’re going to reduce the number of opioid-related deaths, that’s the number one strategic plan of the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office in 2017,” Stanek said.
The countywide campaign will run throughout the year in a concerted effort to build a coalition of school districts, law enforcement agencies, elected officials, county residents and community organizations to assist with educating parents and youth about current drug dangers and trends. To help spread the word of the effort, Stanek said, community members are encouraged to share posts on social media using the #NOverdose hashtag and attend town hall meetings to become more informed.
The first #NOverdose town mall meeting was March 20 at Wayzata High School. The informational event invited parents and students to learn about current drug trends and how to help prevent drug abuse in the community.
The panel at the town hall also featured Plymouth Police Deputy Chief Dan Plekkenpol, Assistant Dean of the Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School of Addiction Studies Dr. Steven Delisi, Partners in Prevention Director Alison Wobschall and parent Rose McKinney.
Also speaking as part of the panel was parent Kristen Milun, whose 24-year-old son Alex, a Wayzata High School graduate, died of a heroin overdose in 2015. One of the first issues Milun addressed was the stigma surrounding addiction.
“It’s a big secret,” Milun said. “I was proud to talk about my son because I’m proud of him, but clearly we see there’s a lot of shame here.”
Wobschall, director of the Wayzata Schools-focused Partners in Prevention community coalition, said her role is focused toward the prevention of youth substance use. In terms of brain science, she said, the developing brain plays a huge part in the conversation around drug and alcohol use and the behavior of teens in general.
“The prefrontal cortex of the brain is what houses decision-making and control, inhibition, all of the things necessary to say no to using risky substances,” Wobschall said. “Unfortunately, as the brain develops from the back to the front, that prefrontal cortex is what develops last. And so, for girls that happens around 22 years of age and for boys it’s even later at 25. So, that’s a huge factor of this prevention puzzle.”
Wobschall added that using substances as the brain develops can have long-lasting effects on mental health.
Offering a perspective from the law enforcement’s point of view was Plekkenpol, who said members of the community are encouraged to contact local officials about having first responders develop a program that includes naloxone. Sold under the brand name Narcan, the drug administered by first responders and blocks or reverses the effects of opioids in the event of an overdose.
“If somebody has an overdose of an opioid, we can use this particular product to bring them back so that the paramedics can get them to the hospital,” Plekkenpol said.
And while naloxone saves lives – around six since Plymouth Police started carrying it in their squad cars three years ago, Plekkenpol said – it is only a bandage for a larger problem.
Opioid abuse is across all ages in Hennepin County. According to the sheriff’s office, during the past five years, the oldest person to die from opioid-related abuse was a 98-year-old man and the youngest was a 16-year-old girl.
“The ages we’re seeing of people starting are 11, 12, 13, in terms of opioids and marijuana,” said Delisi. “And if you have someone who starts with the pills, they are 19 times more likely to then use heroin.”
Prevention is key to reducing the number of deaths linked to highly addictive opioids, the doctor said.
“This addiction is significantly more difficult to address once it has become a chronic illness. … We’re thinking of addiction in the same way that medicine has thought for a long time about things like hyper-tension, diabetes, heart disease – all of that is much more difficult to treat once you have that chronic disease,” Delisi said. “It is at the prevention level that you really have the greatest impact.”
As part of the community meeting, Stanek offered several drug-abuse facts in the form of a quiz, which included the statistic that opioids are responsible for the most overdose deaths nationwide and that pain pills used to get high are often obtained from parents or grandparents.
To reduce the risk of opioid prescription medication abuse, parents and grandparents are encouraged to store their medicines in a secure place. For expired or unwanted medicine, resident should properly dispose of them at one of nine drop-box locations in Hennepin County. For more information, visit hennepin.us/medicine or call 612-348-3777.
Working together as a community – as residents, schools, doctors and law enforcement – is essential, said McKinney, whose 24-year-old son is three years into his recovery from heroin use.
“We can work together. We can work on all parts of this puzzle: We can work on prevention, we can work on intervention, we can work on treatment and we can work on recovery,” she said. “It really does take this full concerted effort at all parts of the spectrum to make a difference in our communities.”
Contact Jason Jenkins at [email protected]