By Kendal Groner

According to the Tennessee Department of Health, in 2016 there were 1,631 deaths from opioid usage in Tennessee. In Unicoi County alone, a total of 32,610 opioid prescriptions were written that year, a staggering number for population numbers that have hovered around 18,000. While 2017 data has not yet been released, experts assume those numbers have only continued to increase.

To educate the public about the dangers of opioid misuse and discuss resources available to combat this epidemic, the Unicoi County Prevention Coalition, Community Medical Alliance, and Calvary Baptist Church are hosting a Community Opioid Forum on April 26.

“The Community Medical Alliance of Northeast Tennessee wanted to have several community forums on opioids in the Northeast region, and Unicoi County and Washington County will both be having two different forums,” said Christy Smith, executive director of Unicoi County Prevention Coalition.

Along with medical professionals, Town of Erwin Police Chief Regan Tilson and Andy Hagaman with the East Tennessee State University Misuse and Abuse Group will be present during the forum to provide information and answer questions.

Angelee Murray, who founded Red Legacy Recovery, a non-profit providing support for women battling drug or alcohol addiction, will also be sharing a personal anecdote of her own past struggles with opioid addiction.

“We (Unicoi County Prevention Coalition) are funded by the Tennessee Department of Mental Health Substance Abuse Services and primarily what we do is educate the community about the effects of opioid usage,” Smith said.

With a focus on youth, the coalition travels to county schools to educate students about the effects drug use can have on the body, conduct research and gain feedback. In addition to discussing opioid abuse and misuse, the coalition also addresses risky behavior such as alcohol or tobacco usage.

“In 2017, the coalition actually did a survey in grades 6-12 for risky behaviors and in 2017 the average age of a first time prescription drug being used, that was not prescribed for a 6-12 grade, was age 13,” Smith said.

Also in 2017, the coalition’s study found that 14 percent of 10th graders and seven percent of 12th graders used prescription drugs not prescribed to them.

“One of our biggest projects, aside from educating youth, is how to actually count your medications, lock them up and dispose of them properly,” Smith said. “We distribute for free medication lock boxes throughout the county.”

Clinchfield Drug, Neighborhood Service Center, Frontier Health, Roller Pharmacy, Unicoi County Insurance and the Urgent Care of Erwin all have these lock boxes available.

The coalition recently completed a billboard contest that received 45 entries from Unicoi County High School students that educate about the dangers of risky behaviors including alcohol, tobacco and drug abuse.

“When you over prescribe those pills, the leftover pills are still there and anybody can take them,” Smith said. “You see a lot of medications being stolen or ingested by children accidentally. A lot of times people don’t realise that opioids can really disrupt internal organs, especially your liver and kidneys.”

According to Drugabuse.gov, side effects of opiate abuse can include drowsiness, lethargy, paranoia and respiratory depression. In the long run, it is associated with increased dependence, nausea and vomiting, constipation, liver damage and brain damage resulting from respiratory depression.

Smith also noted the impact opiates have on the cortex of the brain, which is largely involved with cognitive behavior, such as decision making.

“Of course your judgment and driving ability are impaired and more people are actually drugged while driving than drinking while driving,” Smith said.

Local resources to combat opioid addiction and misuse include the LifeLine insight alliance with Jason Abernathy serving as the regional coordinator. LifeLine connects individuals with community support and recovery meetings.

First Christian Church in Erwin is currently the only church in the county offering a recovery group for those struggling with opioid addiction.

“There is a faith-based initiative going on across the state to get more churches involved to have support and recovery groups, so I hope with this forum some of the churches will be there to get better informed,” Smith said.

The Community Opioid Forum will be held on Thursday, April 26, from 6-8 p.m. at Calvary Baptist Church Life Center located at 540 Adams Ave, Erwin. Food will be provided and interested participants are encouraged to register by calling 735-8407.