According to a news release from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, there were 908 opioid- or heroin-related deaths in Missouri in 2016, a 35-percent increase over the previous year.

The release said 2.5 people overdosed and died every day last year.

Sandra Zanaboni with the Polk County Health Center knows this epidemic hits close to home.

“Not everyone in Polk County has the disease of addiction, but it’s affecting everyone in Polk County,” Zanaboni said. “We’re all impacted, one way or another.”

Starting the conversation

In light of the new prescription drug monitoring program Gov. Greitens initiated through an executive order signed earlier this month and the spread of the opioid issue, DHSS is holding a series of nine summits across the state to “bring awareness to the issue, spur innovative action and address the specific problems found in different communities throughout Missouri.”

The series of meetings kicked off Thursday, July 20, in Springfield, with several Polk County leaders attending, including Zanaboni.

Making up the rest of the Polk County group was Carol Bookhout with the Polk County Health Center, Bill Hafer with Children’s Division, Joyce Schmelzle with Southwest Baptist University, Dr. T.C. Wall with the Bolivar R-1 School District, Rex Austin with the Polk County Commission, Undersheriff Rod Parks with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office and Chief Mark Webb with the Bolivar Police Department.

From this initial group, Zanaboni and Bookhout said they plan to invite more community organizations, like the Bolivar Area Chamber of Commerce and local addiction treatment programs, to work together to make a “community plan of action,” implementing intervention, treatment and prevention.

Zanaboni and Bookhout said the group already has a conference call scheduled this week to further discuss the issue, and they plan to set up meeting times in the near future.

Empowering action

Zanaboni called the training “empowering.”

“For me, it brought all the entities together that look at the issue,” she said. “It was empowering to see our partners at the table and to have the dialogue while we were sitting there about how we can partner as agencies to begin to address the issue.”

Bookhout said it was “interesting to hear the different points of view” at the Polk County table.

Zanaboni said talking with the various leaders and hearing the presentations helped her understand even more that people “can’t arrest this problem away.”

“Even if they’re caught, it doesn’t solve the problem,” Zanaboni said.

“This is not just a law enforcement issue.”

In turn, the leaders used the short amount of time they had together to share resources and ideas to start developing a plan for the future.

Changing the dialogue

Bookhout and Zanaboni said it is important for community leaders to “change the dialogue” about opioid addiction. As representatives of the Polk County Health department, they feel this is one of their primary responsibilities.

“They talked a little bit about the reasons some people find themselves in this perpetual cycle,” Bookhout said. “It’s an illness, not a choice. It changes how you approach things. For instance, there’s not this shame associated with the disease of cancer, but there is this shame associated with the disease of addiction.”

Zanaboni said “the struggle to feel a part of the community” is a common discussion among those suffering from addiction.

“They never really felt like they fit in before they used,” Zanaboni said. “Once they used, they felt like they could fit in.”

“If we can change our community’s thought process, their perspective, and start to take in and accept these people who are struggling with this disease, then they’re going to find that acceptance in healthier ways,” Bookhout said.

Taking it to the next level

Zanaboni and Bookhout hope bringing together key players and changing the community’s dialogue will lead to important steps to correct the problem.

Improvements to treatment and increases in sober housing are just two of their goals for the future. Realistically, with the proper steps and support in place, Zanaboni said successful treatment can take a year or longer and can include set backs.

However, working together with other leaders, the pair said they are hopeful Polk County can offer those suffering the support they need.

“I think we have some really good support,” Bookhout said. “That’s one thing I was encouraged by. No one’s head was in the sand. It’s not going to stop with opioid abuse. It’s just going to progress.”

What are opioids?

According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse website, opioid drugs include legal pain relievers, synthetic drugs and illegal drugs.

Opioid drugs include:

• Oxycodone (OxyContin)

• Hydrocodone (Vicodin)

• Codeine

• Morphine

• Fentanyl

• Heroin

“These drugs are chemically related and interact with opioid receptors on nerve cells in the body and brain,” the NIDA website said.

How are they misused?

The website said legal pain relievers are generally safe when taken for a short time, but because they produce a “euphoria” in addition to pain relief, they can be misused.

The NIDA website said the “misuse of prescription drugs means taking a medication in a manner or dose other than prescribed; taking someone else’s prescription, even if for a legitimate medical complaint such as pain; or taking a medication to feel euphoria (i.e., to get high). …

“Regular use — even as prescribed by a doctor — can lead to dependence and, when misused, opioid pain relievers can lead to overdose incidents and deaths.”

By Jill Way | Bolivar Herald-Free Press