Effort underway to combat substance abuse problem in McDowell, WNC

Flickr Photo/pop life by frankieleon

McDowell had the ninth highest rate of opioid prescriptions in North Carolina in 2016, according to Western North Carolina Substance Use Alliance.


McDowell County’s has an epidemic of opioid drug use and overdose drug deaths. But efforts are underway now to combat this serious problem.

According to state statistics, McDowell County’s rate of opioid prescriptions is significantly higher than the state average. In 2016, 112 opioid pills were prescribed in McDowell County, on average, for each of the county’s approximately 45,600 residents – the ninth-highest rate of all counties statewide, according to state health data from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

And statistics for 2014 show that McDowell County had high rates of drug overdose deaths – between 18 to 20 deaths for every 100,000 residents. That rate was about three times the rate of deaths 15 years earlier, in 1999, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But a new committee is seeking to tackle this epidemic not just in McDowell County but throughout western North Carolina. In addition, a rally scheduled for April 29 at the McDowell County Courthouse will celebrate recovery from substance abuse and confront this local problem publically and in a positive, uplifting manner.

Vaya Health and community partners announced recently the formation of the Western North Carolina Substance Use Alliance, a collaboration to reduce the prevalence of alcohol and drug misuse, as well as the number of fatal overdoses, in 23 western North Carolina counties. The alliance’s s committee includes representatives from Mission Health, which operates McDowell Hospital, according to a news release.

“The misuse and abuse of alcohol, prescription medications and illicit drugs affect the health and well-being of millions of Americans,” reads the news release. “In 2015, for the first time in U.S. history, the number of heroin-related deaths outnumbered gun homicides. In North Carolina, 25 percent of the 1,567 drug overdose deaths in 2015 involved heroin.

“Western North Carolina has been hit particularly hard by the opioid epidemic, which includes heroin, other illicit drugs and prescription pain medications. In 2014, 17 of 23 western N.C. counties ranked among the top in the state in the rate of fatal overdoses– more than 20 deaths for every 100,000 residents.”

Statewide data also show that all but five counties in the region have higher-than-average rates of opioid pills prescribed per person, particular in counties near the Tennessee border. Macon County topped that list with an average of 258 pills prescribed per resident in 2014, and Swain County prescribers wrote nearly two opioid prescriptions, on average, for each of the county’s 14,000 residents.

The WNC alliance aims to increase collaboration across agencies involved in substance use prevention and treatment, leverage resources to maximize efforts, reduce duplication and establish top priorities for the region. This includes coordinating efforts to increase access to treatment and recovery services, strengthen prevention and education efforts and examine the impact of substance use on overall health and economic development, as a result of lost worker productivity.

The alliance will be chaired by Brian Ingraham, the CEO of Vaya Health, which manages publicly funded mental health, substance use and developmental disability services in western North Carolina.

“Our region is experiencing an epidemic of opioid addiction, as well as misuse of other substances,” Ingraham said. “By bringing together some of western North Carolina’s most dedicated, knowledgeable individuals and agencies, this alliance will allow us to build on each other’s efforts and make a greater impact as a team than we can acting separately.”

The alliance will focus its efforts on the 23 counties Vaya currently serves and be guided by both the 2016 report of the N.C. Governor’s Task Force on Mental Health and Substance Use and the first-ever Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health, also released last year. Four sub-committees will focus on key areas:

• Safe opioid prescribing and medication-assisted treatment, chaired by Dr. Blake Fagan of the Mountain Area Health Education Center (MAHEC)

• Women and perinatal substance use treatment, chaired by Leslie McCrory, substance use consultant for Vaya Health

• Adult substance use treatment continuum and crisis services, chaired by Chad Husted of October Road, Inc.

• Child and adolescent treatment continuum and prevention services, chaired by Danielle Arias of RHA Health Services, Inc. (RHA)

The alliance’s steering committee include representatives from Vaya, Mission Health, MAHEC, Buncombe and Henderson county governments, Duke Life Point, High Country Community Health, Project Lazarus, RHA, October Road, the Cherokee Indian Hospital Authority and the local criminal justice system. The counties involved in the alliance are: Alexander, Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Buncombe, Caldwell, Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Henderson, Jackson, Macon, Madison, McDowell, Mitchell, Polk, Rutherford, Swain, Transylvania, Watauga, Wilkes and Yancey.

In addition, the McDowell Health Coalition, the Substance Abuse Work Group and McDowell Recovery Solutions will hold the Blue Ridge Recovery Rally on the McDowell County Courthouse lawn on Saturday, April 29. Organizer Rev. Danny Hampton of Freedom Life Ministries said previously this rally will celebrate recovery from addiction and let others know that they too can overcome their dependence on drugs or alcohol. It will also be a day that the local community addresses the problem of substance abuse directly and openly.

Vaya Health is a partner in this recovery rally, which will seek to lift up those who are recovering from their addictions and encourage others to do the same.

For more information about the alliance, visit vayahealth.com.

Vaya Health manages public funds for mental health, substance use disorder and intellectual or developmental disability services in 23 North Carolina counties: Alexander, Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Buncombe, Caldwell, Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Henderson, Jackson, Macon, Madison, McDowell, Mitchell, Polk, Rutherford, Swain, Transylvania, Watauga, Wilkes and Yancey. Access to services and crisis help are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at 1-800-849-6127. Learn more at www.vayahealth.com.

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