According to the Georgia Department of Health, there is an average of 10 deaths in Fayette County every year from opioid overdoses. That statistic is not the highest in the state or even highest in the area (there are 15 opioid-related deaths per year in neighboring Coweta County). Still, the message was clear Thursday at the town hall titled “Not Our Town Not Our Kids: Pain Killers, Heroin and Overdose” in Sams Auditorium. One death from a drug overdose is one too many.
Nick Russo was almost a statistic himself. A senior counselor for the Insight Program, a drug and alcohol treatment center in Peachtree City, Russo shared his background as a former drug addict on a panel of the community members to talk about opioid addiction. The panel, which consisted of a Peachtree City EMS, a Drug Enforcement Administration task force officer, a representative from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and an administrator and participant from the county’s Drug Court program, answered questions from moderator and local attorney Catherine Sanderson, offering a variety of perspectives from experiences that have intersected with opioid usage, either through their personal life, professional life, or both.
“I thought that getting sober was the end of the line,” Russo said.
Russo’s testimony was not far off from the story Gloria King shared of her son, David King, who lost his life at the age of 20 to an opioid overdose. A documentary, David’s Story, was aired in the auditorium before the panel discussion took place, provoking a passionate and important dialogue. The sentiment, stated by Gloria and reinforced by Russo and Drug-Free Fayette Coalition Project Coordinator Michael Mumper who organized the event, was similar. Drug addiction can happen to anyone.
Local law enforcement and elected officials filled the seats of the audience, as did conscientious high school students and concerned parents of students younger than high school. One mother spoke up and asked the panel whether she should be worried about her middle school-aged children getting involved in drugs.
Amanda Williamson is familiar with the drug using culture, because she’d always been a part of it. Now, two years into the county’s Drug Court program, Williamson is working towards leaving her past behind, saying that she’s had to give up friends that she’s grown up with because they encouraged poor decisions. On the panel, Williamson told that mother that she’s seen some people start using drugs as early as 12 years old.
“As young as middle school, elementary school in some cases,” added Peachtree City Lt. David Winkles.
Winkles reminded his audience that secondhand smoke doesn’t only come from cigarettes. Infants can be at risk if their parents are using drugs around them.
Much of the talk Thursday evening centered around parenting as both an issue that has not been preventing enough young people from beginning to use drugs and a likely solution to reducing the amount of future drug users. It’s about having the difficult conversation, one that not all parents are currently having because they trust their children, sometimes too much.
“My mom believed everything I said,” Williamson said. “I could do no wrong.”
Raymonde Neely, an FCA representative who referenced his organization’s One Way 2 Play Drug Free initiative, said, “Relationships start before the issue comes up.”
It’s best, Neely and others agreed, to be proactive in having the drug talk before a child is pressured to abuse drugs. There might be a disconnect between parents and teenagers in the county, however, about whether these conversations are actually taking place.
Mumper said that a survey of parents and teens from the Fayette County School System found that 67 percent of parents say they are having talks with their teenagers about the dangers of drugs. Meanwhile, only 40 percent of teenagers say they’ve had that same talk.
“We have to be parents not friends to our kids,” Mumper said, “and we need to drive the 67 percent number up.”
It’s not just about having the conversation, Mumper said, but also making sure the conversation is meaningful so that a teenager can recognize the importance of the harm drug abuse can cause.
The issue, an epidemic nationwide and certainly enough of a problem locally that it warrants a community discussion, often begins with abuse of prescription drugs. According to a survey of the school system, Mumper said only 10 percent of parents said they correctly lock their medications up at home. Easy access to prescription drugs is sometimes what leads young people to begin using drugs in the first place.
“If you see signs in the early stages, you have to act,” Williamson said. “You have to get involved. You have to be. I didn’t have that, and I don’t think it would’ve gone this far if I did.”
On Saturday, October 28, National Drug Take Back Day gives people a chance to get rid of what is often the impetus of drug abuse. According to a 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 6.4 million Americans abused controlled prescription drugs. The day provides an opportunity to dispose of leftover prescription drugs in a safe and responsible manner. In Fayette County, drop off will take place on that day at the Fayette County Sheriff’s Office Building A and the Peachtree City Police Department between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
Fayette County residents can band together to fight the opioid epidemic on National Drug Take Back Day, but it won’t get rid of the problem completely. As Sanderson said in her review of the panel’s comments, it takes everyone in the community.
“This problem needs to be approached from 1,000 different angles,” Sanderson said. “We need the involvement of the schools and coaches and the mentors in our community. And we need the parents to listen and not necessarily believe our kids and not be in denial when we have that gut feeling. And then we need the support of law enforcement to address it as a community health issue.”