Bryan County is one of just four statewide targeted through an opioid crisis grant that will attempt to focus on intervention and prevention strategies.
“There was a needs assessment done for all 159 counties in the state and we were one of four identified as having the highest risk,” according to Mary Fuller, project coordinator for Bryan County for the State Targeted Response Opioid Project.
The other counties chosen for the project are Richmond (Augusta) as well as Coweta and DeKalb near Atlanta.
Among the data used to determine which counties would be targeted was the 2017 Georgia Student Health Survey, which is administered yearly to all middle and high school students. The information provided is anonymous and self-reported.
According to the results, 4.5 percent of freshman and 4.5 percent of seniors in Bryan County Schools reported using prescription opioids within 30 days of the survey. Statewide numbers were 1.8 percent of freshman and 2 percent of seniors.
At Bryan County High School, 3.8 percent of freshman and 6.1 percent of seniors said they had used opioids within 30 days of taking the survey. For Richmond Hill High School, the numbers were 4.7 percent of freshman and 3.9 percent of seniors.
The project is being run through the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health & Developmental Disabilities using federal money. Some $11.8 million will be used to increase both treatment and awareness of opioid abuse.
Fuller said opioids — primarily oxycodone, hydrocodone and Vicodin — are prescribed for chronic pain and ideally on a short-term basis, either in end-of-life situations such as hospice or following surgery.
“Research shows that one in four users will become addicted, and since it is a prescription people often think it can’t be harmful because a doctor gave it to them,” she said. “While opioid abuse doesn’t necessarily lead to heroin addiction, a large percentage of heroin addicts started off abusing opioids.”
Another problematic opioid, Fuller noted, is the fentanyl patch.
“Fentanyl is used in anesthesia when you have surgery, but when you’re under they are breathing for you with a machine,” she said. “It’s very potent and even a small amount can kill you. It can cause a lot of respiratory problems.”
Fuller said the opioid problem in Georgia has gotten so severe that it is becoming more and more common for first responders to carry naloxone, which is used to block the effects of opioids, especially in an overdose.
“Not only can they use it on the person who is overdosing, but they can use it on themselves if they come in contact with something harmful,” she said.
Part of Fuller’s plan moving forward is to work with the schools and other community groups to increase awareness.
“We need to talk to students about the dangers of opioids and get parents talking to their children and recognizing the signs of abuse,” she said.
Fuller said some 70 percent of those who abuse opioids get them from family or friends.
“With high schoolers, for example, you have athletes who get injured and have surgery and end up getting a prescription,” she said. “Parents need to be aware of what is in the medicine cabinet.”
Fuller said parents also need to talk to their children about the dangers of taking prescriptions not intended for them.
“If our numbers are already high above the state average by ninth grade, that means these discussions need to start happening in early middle school,” she said. “Parents need to know the signs and symptoms of abuse.”
Fuller said one danger is what is known as a “pharm party,” where students bring whatever prescription drug they can find at home and dump them all in a bowl.
“Everyone takes something and they have no idea what it is or what effect it might have on them,” she said. “They have no idea how their body will respond.”
One immediate step parents can take is to get rid of any prescription opioids around the house that are not being properly used.
“Anything that’s expired or unused shouldn’t be there,” she said.
There are drop boxes for such prescriptions at both the Richmond Hill Police Department and the Bryan County Sheriff’s Office in Pembroke.
Georgia’s current grant expires in April, but the state is already working on securing another one for fiscal 2019.
“Prevention is the most effective way to change a community,” Fuller said. “We want to make sure Bryan County continues to be a healthy community instead of waiting for a problem to occur and then trying to fix it.”