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By Ben Coley / The Dispatch
Posted Jan 26, 2018 at 7:30 PM Updated Jan 27, 2018 at 12:12 AM

Eight years ago, scientists with the National Institute on Drug Abuse launched National Drug and Alcohol Facts Week with the intention of educating the public and busting myths.

With the recent opioid crisis sweeping the nation, and more specifically, Davidson County, local medical professionals are hoping to give concerned residents more information about what’s driving substance abuse.

According to the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, in 2015, Davidson County ranked 13th in the state for the number of opiate-related deaths. In 2016, 12.2 million opioid pills were dispensed in Davidson County, which was among the 15 highest in the state.

Maj. Mark Robbins with Davidson County Emergency Services said that in 2017, officials responded to 425 overdoses in which they distributed NARCAN — compared to 302 in 2016. Robbins noted the number could be higher since it doesn’t include those who were dead on arrival or those who received NARCAN before emergency officials arrived. So far in 2018, emergency officials have distributed NARCAN 30 times. The county averages about one or two calls per day in reference to overdoses.

During the 2016-17 fiscal year, Daymark Recovery Services in Lexington treated 677 patients with substance abuse illnesses.

Daymark offers walk-in assessments, scheduled appointments, individual and group therapy for substance abuse illness, medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction, psychiatry, day treatment intensive in-home services, an inpatient crisis and detox center for adults, mobile crisis services, indigent medication programs and driving while impaired services. The facility also distributes more than $750,000 a year in free medications via samples and prescription assistance programs.

Dr. Philip Nofal, medical director for Daymark, said one of the biggest misconceptions about substance abuse is that it’s a character flaw and a choice as opposed to a treatable disease. According to Nofal, people often have multiple addictions at the same time and each one counts as a separate disease.

Nofal explained that substance abuse is frequently multi-generational and that it tends to be more prevalent in families. The medical director added that it’s a disease state just like hypertension or diabetes.

“Just like certain illnesses, if you are not exposed to the product, you won’t have the symptoms,” Nofal said. “But once exposed, your brain is pre-programmed to respond to the substance more than people who don’t have the genetic make up that would respond. So the alcohol or the tobacco or the cocaine or the opiates or the benzos, all work through the same common pathway in the brain and there’s a predisposition for addiction, and it’s bad news.”

Nofal said another obstacle when facing substance abuse is financial despair.

“When people are out of work, they look for things to bring joy to their life, because there’s misery, so they’re looking in the wrong places,” Nofal said.

Dr. Tedra Anderson-Brown, Cardinal Innovations’ medical director for substance abuse, noted that some people feel as if substance abuse won’t happen to them or affect their family. According to Anderson-Brown, addiction doesn’t discriminate among race, age, gender or socioeconomic status.

For family members hoping to address the issue with their loved ones, Anderson-Brown said it’s important to be honest, trust instincts, be aware of resources and gather support from counselors, medical professionals or faith-based leaders.

“I think the other piece of that is, giving the message that we as a family support treatment and recovery, but also that continued use or unacceptable behavior won’t be tolerated,” Anderson-Brown said. “It’s also very helpful, and what practitioners will often talk about, is having several short, frequent conversations that may be more helpful then one long, drawn out conversation. We can listen and learn in small bites.”

Similar to how people with diabetes use insulin, Nofal said those with addiction can have periods of sobriety as long as they are on the proper medications. Among those medications are Vivitrol injections, which help reduce cravings for alcohol and opiates and Buprenorphine, which stops cravings for opiates.

Needle exchange programs, medication drop-off boxes and treatment centers are all resources that may help reduce the disease, according to Nofal.

Locally, Davidson County Stop Prescription Abuse Now! Coalition offers permanent drop-off locations at Davidson Medical Ministries in Lexington, Novant Health Thomasville Medical Center and Medical Park Pharmacy. The organization recently started an awareness campaign by posting A-frame signs at county buildings and schools featuring information about drug abuse.

“We hope that these signs will serve as a reminder for all our citizens about our continuing overdose drug problem and the importance of proper storing and disposal,” said Karen Villines, health educator and coordinator of DCSPAN.

According to the medical professionals, other ways to combat substance abuse is having churches and school systems talking about the issue as a disease state in an honest way and possibly having recovered drug addicts coming into schools and describing how their lives have changed once sober.

Anderson-Brown stressed that drug addiction must not be viewed as a moral failing.

The Cardinal medical director said that before addicts can be assisted, it is important to overcome the negative perception often associated with drug abuse.

“I think it’s helpful for our communities to know that those who have substance abuse challenges are not bad people,” Anderson-Brown said. “They are us. They are our families and our loved ones. And when we can get beyond that, we can then help guide people to getting the help that they need.”

For any issues regarding drug addiction, call the Daymark crisis line at (866) 273-8255 or the Cardinal crisis line at 1 (800) 939-5911.