On a recent afternoon, a group of teenage girls gathered in tight quarters at Silkscreen Marketing in Holland. They took turns screen printing blue T-shirts with help from the shop’s staff, imprinted with a humorous image of large glasses and a mustache with the logo: “Hidden Heroes: Solving the world’s opiate problem … one day at a time.”
The young women, giggling and having fun throughout the t-shirt making process, hope the shirts draw attention to a not-so-funny topic: opioids. In particular, the epidemic that is plaguing Michigan and the rest of the country. They explained that the meaning behind the hidden heroes theme was the idea that anyone can play a part in fighting the ongoing epidemic, even teens, who often aren’t thought of as problem solvers. “Not a lot of people come to us with it,” said Taliyah*, 15.
‘It’s happening here too’
Community Mental Health of Ottawa County Prevention Specialist Jessica Irvin has been working with the teens through the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Holland. It’s one of many initiatives she’s been leading that are being undertaken by the Ottawa County Prescription Drug and Opiate Taskforce. A $27,900 grant from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Foundation, the Michigan Health Endowment Fund, the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan and the Superior Health Foundation as part of the Taking Action on Opioid and Prescription Drug Abuse in Michigan by Supporting Community Responses initiative is funding efforts to educate local teens about the epidemic and overall dangers of substance use disorders. Part of the funding is also being used for the Holland Physician Hospital Organization Opiate Misuse Reduction Project, which will create a physician-led, multi-pronged strategy to reduce the rate of opiate misuse in southwest Ottawa County. The taskforce, formed at the beginning of 2016,includes law enforcement, doctors, hospital organizations, and community groups. The group has worked to increase drug takeback days, distribute the opioid-reversal drug Narcan and offer trainings to the community about its use. Irvin said despite Ottawa County’s consistently high rankings as one of the healthiest counties in Michigan, the opioid problem is one that’s in their backyard. The state average for opioid prescriptions is a staggering 131 for every 100 people. Holland’s numbers were closer to 166 prescriptions for every 100 people. In 2017, there were 31 overdose deaths in Ottawa County, with 90 percent involving an opiate of some form. “It’s happening here too,” Irvin said.
The kids are alright
Prevention is at the heart of the Boys and Girls Club program. Irvin reached out and asked for help from the teens in the hopes that youth and creativity could offer fresh perspective on a problem adults haven’t been able to solve.
Silkscreen Marketing employees pose with Boys and Girls Club members and Jessica Irvin (far right). Over many weeks, they’ve built a foundational knowledge of what opiates are, how they affect and alter the brain and had the opportunity to meet an educator in our community who is in recovery himself. “I wouldn’t want the experience he had to happen to me,” said Amonjanae*, 15. Taliyah and Amonjanae said they hope to use their newfound knowledge to educate their families and peers about the dangers of taking prescription opioids not prescribed to you. They were surprised at the scope of the epidemic and that it’s happening to their neighbors. Both say they also have more compassion for those who fall victim to substance use disorders. “It really wasn’t their choice,” Taliyah said. “It changes the brain so you need it.” Sara DelBene is the teen director for the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Holland South Side Club, which the girls attend. She said the summer program has helped form leadership skills and taught the teens about citizenship. The creative approach to learning has really worked, from designing the t-shirts, working on a mural and other out-of-the-box approaches to learning. “I just think it’s great to be creative in all those different ways and to be informed,” she said.
Taking care of the physicians
The second focus area for the taskforce targets physicians, who are often on the front line when it comes to combating the opioid epidemic. Gina Schutter is the quality manager at the Holland Physician Hospital Organization. She said there are three key areas the PHO is focusing on with help from the grant funding:
- Reducing the quantity of prescribed opiates.
- Creating a protocol for responsible prescribing.
- Increasing medication assisted treatment (MAT) for patients with opiate-related substance use disorders.
The organization is establishing a dashboard of opiate prescribing rates for each primary care physician and will then provide feedback if rates seem especially high compared to their peers. Responsible prescribing protocols will help physicians understand how to appropriately limit opiate prescriptions and how to recognize the signs of medication misuse. Increasing access to MAT will help reduce stigma for patients with substance use disorder and improve adherence to therapy. The PHO represents 193 providers in the Holland and Zeeland area. Schutter said hitting the right balance of treating pain while also acknowledging the potential danger of opioid addiction can be difficult for physicians. However, it’s important to keep striving for the best approaches, whether that’s alternative pain therapies or smaller initial doses of opiates. “Drug abuse comes with all sorts of health ramifications that eventually down the line the providers are going to have to deal with,” Schutter said. The taskforce’s efforts go well beyond the two initiatives funded, but Irvin and Schutter are hopeful that focused, intentional prevention efforts targeted at teens and physicians can spark real change in their communities. This post is part of our Taking Action series, in which we’ll focus on Blue Cross-supported efforts across Michigan to address the opioid epidemic. Check back to find out how other communities are fighting the problem of opioid use disorder and overdose, or visit Blue Cross’ opioids 101 online resource page at www.mibluesperspectives.com/opioids101. Learn more about opioids here:
- Working Together to Improve Addiction Treatment
- Understanding Opioids and Their Effects
- Report Shows Largest Decrease in Opioid Prescriptions Nationally
*Because of their age, we’ve agreed to withhold the last names of Taliyah and Amonjanae.