By Zachary Horner, Chatham News + Record Staff
(Editor’s note: this is the third of a five-part series about Chatham County’s response to the opioid crisis.)
On April 4, a short documentary was shown to the small crowd gathered in the Goldston Town Hall.
It was called “Kids,” and it looked at three teenagers, either Northwood students or recent graduates, who died from opioid or related overdoses in between 2016 and 2017 — Zafer Estill, Boone Cummins and Lara Summers.
The short film also featured interviews with family members about their lives.
Cummins’ mother Julie spoke after the documentary played and told his story. Boone was just one day away from going to rehab, to finding some help for his addiction, when he died of an overdose related to Xanax.
The effect of opioids on Chatham County can perhaps be found most visibly at the high school level, but fear among law enforcement and community members is that it could spread further in the future without education.
Benzos and opioids
While Chatham’s youth are partaking in opioid abuse, the No. 1 concern for some parents and the school system as a whole are “benzos.”
Short for benzodiazepines, benzos are sedatives usually prescribed for anxiety or insomnia. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, benzos “work to calm or sedate a person” by raising the level of a neurotransmitter in the brain. Examples of benzos include Valium, Xanax and Klonopin. NIDA adds that more than 30 percent of opioid-involved overdoses also include benzos and that most people prescribed opioids have been prescribed benzos concurrently. The effect has been so drastic that the CDC issued new guidelines for opioid prescribing in 2016 recommending separating the prescriptions, if necessary.
Rob Schooley is the School Health, Physical Education and Wellness Insturcional Program Facilitator for Chatham County Schools. He said that many students are hearing about medicines like Xanax from TV shows and commercials and get interested.
“But it’s been overshadowed by the opioid epidemic,” Schooley said. “Withdrawal from benzos is actually more dangerous.”
Julie Cummins said at April’s opioid event in Goldston that many kids don’t get scared by Xanax and similar medicines.
“They seem to have a decent understanding, at least when they’re starting out, that oxycontins (and other opioids), ‘That stuff will kill me,’” Cummins said. “But Xanax is in every song that kids hear on the radio, it’s in every fun teenage movie that they go to see in the movies. It’s around us all the time.”
She added that some pills are made to look like Xanax but have fentanyl, a dangerous and sometimes deadly opioid, in them.
“These are prescriptions and they are very dangerous,” she said. “These are not things you’re supposed to be on long-term.”
A heroin problem
Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control show that opioid prescriptions are going down, in the country, state and county. But law enforcement officials fear the next wave: heroin.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the number of people dying nationwide from overdoses involving heroin has risen from 2,399 in 2007 to 15,482 in 2017. The agency added that “the increase in deaths involving heroin is driven by the use of fentanyl.” The Drug Policy Alliance says roughly 4.9 million people in the U.S. reported using heroin at least once in their lifetime.
Heroin is a semi-synthetic opioid, derived from morphine, that was created in 1874 and first released as an over-the-counter drug in 1895 as a cough suppressant. But the addictive nature of the drug led to its ban in 1924.
The 2018 Chatham County Community Assessment, a project of the Chatham County Health Department and Chatham Health Alliance, reported that 1.7 percent of county residents said they had a friend or family member who used heroin at least once in the last 12 months. Of Chatham County students, there was no specific statistic on heroin use, but 27.2 percent of high schoolers said they had “offered, sold or given an illegal drug on school property in the past 12 months” in a 2017 survey, along with 5.7 percent of middle schoolers.
Since heroin has many of the same qualities as opioids, law enforcement officials like county Sheriff Mike Roberson said it could be the next big problem in Chatham, as nearby communities like Sanford and Durham are already struggling. The Lee County Sheriff’s Office reported arrests of six individuals on five occasions in March for heroin possession within the county and at least one more in April, and in February, ABC11 reported that six people were arrested by the Orange County Sheriff’s Office and Carrboro and Chapel Hill police departments as part of a heroin and fentanyl trafficking ring bust.
“We have heroin here, but it’s not to the extent it could be if we don’t get on this issue,” Roberson said at the Goldston event.
Sgt. Ronnie Miller from the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office said nearly all of the heroin in the county has fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50-100 times more powerful than morphine, in it.
“Once these pills get hard to find, (people) may turn to heroin,” Miller said. “A percentage of those people will turn to heroin, and we have to think about that.”
Getting needed help
Substance abuse and mental health counseling are often linked. Layton Long, Chatham’s public health director, made the connection at the meeting in Goldston.
“People do not know in the community where to direct people for mental health services,” Long said. “It’s important for people like yourselves to come out and learn about it so you can communicate it to the people you connect with.”
County leaders have expressed concerns in recent years over access to healthcare as a barrier for the county’s well-being in general. The CCCA listed “access to comprehensive health services” as the “top issue affecting Chatham County” and the “seventh-leading issue affecting quality of life for Chatham residents.”
Just 39.5 percent of residents surveyed said they “know where to access mental health services.” Out of the 14.2 percent of residents who wanted substance abuse treatment in the past five years, 85.3 percent got the help they sought.
For some, treatment can be the different between life and death. Anna Stanley, program director at Chatham Recovery, said any addiction to any drug is usually not the only issue facing someone, and that her organization places a lot of focus on mental health counseling.
“Most of those addicted are not addicted in a vacuum,” Stanley said. “We think it’s really important to treat the whole person.”
Long said that treatment is an option for people, but it’s expensive and “there’s not enough money” out there for it.
“But you can come out on the other side with a positive outcome,” he said. “If you’re not able to get into treatment, you’re not getting cured. If you’re not able to stay in treatment, you’re not getting cured.”
In the next installment of this series: What is Chatham County doing to try to combat the opioid epidemic? For most, it’s about education and awareness. Read about that and more in next week’s News + Record.
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