DrugFree WilCo, a group dedicated to educate the public about the opioid crisis in Wilson County, held its first public meeting Thursday at Providence Church in Mt. Juliet to begin to tackle an issue that has gripped the entire country.
“The coalition is dedicated to uniting the collective community of Wilson County with the mission to prevent and reduce drug misuse and addiction; and to provide education, communication and awareness of resources,” DrugFree WilCo’s mission statement said.
The coalition leadership includes Tammy Grow, a school health coordinator with the Lebanon Special School District, Wilson County sheriff’s Lt. Scott Moore, Susan Shaw with the Wilson County mayor’s office and Michael Ayalon, founder and CEO of Greek University.
Ayalon moderated a panel discussion that featured Mt. Juliet police Chief James Hambrick, Wilson County parent Lisa Bass Tapley, faith-based community coordinator James Harper with Middle Tennessee grand division, JourneyPure medical director Dr. Stephen Loyd, Tennova Healthcare-Lebanon’s Dr. Scott Wilson, Addiction Campuses treatment specialist Tricia Brianne Benitez, Cedar Recovery CEO Joe Bond, Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services faith-based initiatives director Monty Burks and words from Jacob Armstrong, pastor of Providence Church.
Community members gathered to hear the panel discussion, with several members of the audience sharing their personal stories of loss and struggle with opioid addiction.
Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto led the Pledge of Allegiance and addressed the crowd with a message of compassion to help those who have elected him to help lead Wilson County in both times of prosperity and of struggle.
“There is a world of people out of the 135,000 that live in our county that are battling something that they can’t whip on their own, and we must pull together and we must find a way to help,” Hutto said.
Grow said everyone is affected by the opioid crisis, and said last year in Wilson County, there were 93 opioid prescriptions per 100 people.
“We are here tonight because the opioid crisis does not discriminate. It devastates families from all walks of life – it’s all of us,” Grow said.
Ayalon moderated the discussion, where he introduced Loyd. JourneyPure is an addiction treatment center in Nashville.
Loyd said statewide there is an average of 1.14 pain prescriptions per person.
“This is it. It’s not HIV disease. It’s not hep-C. It’s not heart disease. It’s not obesity. This is the biggest problem in Wilson County. It’s the biggest problem in every county in our state,” Loyd said. “We lost 73,000 Americans last year to drug overdoses. In all of Vietnam – Vietnam was 1955-75 – we lost 58,000 Americans. I’m not minimizing that at all, but I’m telling you that every year that goes by we lose more Americans than we did in 20 years of Vietnam. In the state of Tennessee last year, 1,776 people died by drug overdose. That’s about four and a half Tennesseans a day.”
Loyd said while the number of people abusing and addicted to pills has decreased, there was an increase in the use of heroin, which is increasing in strength, along with it mixed with things like fentanyl, which is deadly.
“If you don’t provide access to treatment, people just switch over, and the cheapest switchover from pills is to heroin,” Loyd said.
Loyd warned the audience not to underestimate the power or presence of opioids. He said it is already present in the middle schools and high schools in Wilson County.
Loyd detailed the complexities of addiction through his personal experience of practicing medicine, when 15 years ago he became addicted to pain medication.
Loyd’s medical experience and expertise was matched by Wilson, and the two outlined challenges such as the power of large pharmaceutical companies and flawed practice reporting the numbers of drug overdoses, which suggests that the actual number of deaths are far higher than reported. Education, regulation and a focus on prevention were the focus on how the crisis could be faced from a medical standpoint.
Harper spoke about his personal struggles with addiction and the need for the community, especially the faith-based communities, to support and not stigmatize addiction.
“I think this matters because it’s happening. It’s happening all around us. Not only is it happening all around us, I think the community and the congregations don’t understand. They don’t know what’s going on or they try to turn a blind eye to it. We have to see what is going on in our pews. We have to see what’s going on in our community. We have to put a stop to this epidemic,” Harper said. “The biggest resource we have is in the pews. We have to be able to stand up against this, to stand up and offer hope and be able to offer help. We can’t turn a blind-eye to this anymore. Now it’s smacking us in the face and we have to do something about it.”
“If an individual comes into a congregation and they’re struggling with a heroin addiction or they’re struggling with an opioid addiction, and what do we do? ‘Well, that’s one of those people.’ It’s not ‘those people,’ it’s us,” Harper said. “We’re supposed to be the triage for those that are hurting, but we’ve become a country club for saints.”
Harper said one of the focuses of this initiative would be to hold regional faith-based educational conferences to teach church leadership and congregations how to welcome the addicted into their churches and to help them heal with dignity and with the support that they need.
Hambrick said initiatives like DrugFree WilCo are needed to tackle the opioid crisis. He said many burglaries, thefts and other petty crimes in Wilson County sometimes happen because addicts try to find ways to get money to fuel their addiction. Hambrick also said traditional policing would not be successful to stop the epidemic.
“We understand from a law enforcement perspective that we’re not going to be able to arrest our way out of this problem,” Hambrick said.
Tapley lost her son to an opioid overdose after he was injured at work. She gave an impassioned speech about the severity of the crisis and offered to share her personal story of loss as a way to connect with and support those who are struggling with addiction.
Tapley is responsible for DrugFree WilCo’s fruition after she reached out to Hutto, who had a personal relationship with her and her son.
“I think it’s important, because I see more young people on this drug. They come and talk to me about it. They feel free to come and talk to me about it, and they tell me what they’re going through and how hard it is for them,” Tapley said. “We need to help them. We need to get the right help for them. They’re dying, and they’re scared. It’s not fun anymore. When they started out, like they said, it’s ‘kicks and giggles, we’re having a good time.’ But now the good time has turned into something scary, and they don’t know how. They tell me what they go through trying to get off of it, and my main concern is that I don’t want another parent to feel the loss of a child. That’s something that you can’t explain. That’s a pain that will never go away, so we have to do something. You only have a small window to hold your child’s hand.”
While the amount of information and the towering statistics can make the opioid crisis seem unbeatable, this team of individuals said they are are committed and empowered to make a difference in a crisis that has changed the landscape of Wilson County and impacted a generation.
Tapley pleaded to the audience to seek help and to reach out to the panel of professionals before it becomes too late and for those who aren’t struggling directly to keep the memory and momentum of those affected alive so that help can become a reality.
“These people up here will help you, but I just don’t want to see the fire stop. I hope you continue to pass the torch on to somebody, because somebody out there needs you. They’re scared. They think they’re going to die, and they don’t know what to do, and I just want to see it keep burning,” Tapley said.
DrugFree WilCo will continue its public outreach discussions in the coming months and made a long-term commitment to tackle the opioid crisis in Wilson County.
More information about DrugFree WilCo and the resources available for those who struggle with addiction may be found at facebook.com/drugfreewilco.