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ROGER WATSON COLUMN: We need to give hope to residents

The 2018 Community Health Assessment can easily be interpreted as evidence of a community in crisis, but a closer look at the efforts springing out of the realization of Stanly County’s substance abuse situation gives hope that the worst is over.

Public Health Educator Debbie Bennett of the Stanly County Health Department presented some of the “highlights” of the county’s recent Community Health Assessment to the monthly health forum during a lunch meeting at the hospital last week.

Here are a just a few of the stark facts she unveiled from the report.

Roger Watson

Through the first seven months of 2018, the local emergency department handled 54 opioid overdose cases with the highest number of those (14) happening in July.

Of those cases, only six overdoses came from commonly prescribed painkillers. The other 48 were the result of the abuse of heroin or synthetic narcotics.

That shows with the reduction of the quantity of prescribed opioids in the market, drug abusers have turned to heroin to fulfill their addictions.

Stanly County leads our peer group of similar-sized counties (Carteret, Chatham, Haywood, Moore) in deaths from heart disease, cancer and suicide.

Stanly County also leads its peer group in the percentage of adults living below the poverty level at 17.1 percent of the population.

A lack of education is also a key concern as Stanly County leads similar-sized counties with 15.3 percent of the population 25 and older who do not have a high school diploma. Only 16.5 percent of the county population has obtained a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Unemployment and/or underemployment along with inadequate or lack of health insurance were listed as the two community issues by survey respondents.

So, it’s easy to see why the plague of heroin abuse has us in its grip. A high poverty level combined with a lack of employment opportunities, low education levels and a lack of health insurance is a noxious witches brew for substance abuse.

But, if the first step in solving a problem is acknowledging the problem, Stanly County may be well on its way to making some progress against this plague of substance abuse issues.

Abuse of both illegal and prescription drugs was ranked as our biggest health concern by survey respondents from every area of the county. The problem is widely recognized and, as a community, we are tackling the problems of addiction and substance abuse.

Bennett presented stats showing how many drugs have been left in drop boxes to safely dispose of drugs throughout the county.

In 2018, there were more than 307 pounds of drugs left in the drop boxes. Through two months of 2019, 76 pounds of drugs had been collected. If you extrapolate that out, drug collections could exceed 450 pounds this year.
The good news is drugs are finding their way to the collection boxes and not the hands of those who abuse them.

Other community efforts give hope that our substance abuse problem is on the downward trend.

Our EMS workers have access to Narcan and are using the drug to save the lives of overdose victims.

There is also a group who goes to substance abusers after an overdose event and asks them if they are ready and willing to enter a treatment program.

We see churches taking an active role in asking how they can help the problem.
Will’s Place is working hard to reduce the stigma of being a substance abuser.

They spread the message that shaming the user and telling them to just stop using drugs just isn’t a viable solution for the problem.

The community is coming together to solve the surface issues of substance abuse.

The things we have to tackle next are the ingredients of the poisonous witches brew that got us in this mess.

Underemployment — We need more full-time jobs that provide that provide health insurance benefits and a living wage.

A new fast food restaurant on the bypass shouldn’t get anyone excited these days.

We need real economic growth. Politicians want to point to the county’s 4 percent unemployment rate and say everything is OK.

If that myth helps you sleep at night that’s fine, but everyone knows that statistic doesn’t tell the whole story. For the 1,192 people in Stanly County listed as unemployed in February 2019, they are 100 percent without a job.
Education — We have to greatly reduce the 15 percent of people 25 and older walking around without a high school diploma and we have to increase 16.5 percent of people with college degrees. We have the 11th best community college in the state and the UNC system of colleges is one of the best in the country.

Somewhere, we have a disconnect here that has to be corrected.

We have a great community effort coming together to save the lives of those addicted to opioids and other substances, but it’s only when we give our citizens hope of a future and lift them out of the cycle of poverty that we truly eliminate the conditions where opioid abuse lives and thrives.

Roger Watson is publisher of The Stanly News & Press.