The opioid epidemic is unavoidable – even on Halloween in Western North Carolina. BPR’s Davin Eldridge reports on a 'spooky' holiday decoration that some parents think went too far in calling attention to the problem.
Every year hundreds of families in Macon County visit Halloween In The Park—an annual event thrown by the county, where dozens of businesses hand out candy to trick-or-treaters. There are bounce houses, hay rides, and a ‘haunted trail’.
Along that trail was a bobble-headed butler standing at attention, holding a serving tray with a sign that read ‘Free Overdose Reversal Kits.”
“It’s really about what’s getting introduced to our kids, and at what age," said Donna Steiner, who brought her two sons to the event. "After my youngest had seen it and read it, and I had to sit there and explain to him what a reversal kit was."
After seeing the decoration, Steiner was livid, along with Kayla Thompson, a mother of four.
“I’m all for the whole, 'let’s get the whole drug thing out of here,' and all that stuff--the whole awareness thing. But not at an event for children. Sure, at a certain age, you have to make them aware at a certain point. I don’t see a 3 to 5 to 7 year-old saying ‘hey let me get that Narcan kit’. I thought it was inappropriate.”
"Sure, at a certain age, you have to make them aware at a certain point. I don’t see a 3 to 5 to 7 year-old saying ‘hey let me get that Narcan kit’. I thought it was inappropriate.”
The decoration was put out by Stephanie Almeida, who runs Full Circle Recovery—a substance abuse and treatment facility in Franklin. She said the decoration was on display mostly to let parents know about the resources available at her facility. It also served as a quiet reminder of the ongoing opioid epidemic. She finds it ironic that nobody complained last year when she put the very same decoration on display. Nevertheless, she gets why some parents were upset.
“I totally understand," she said. "I don’t want to explain it to any kid. The fact that we’re not speaking with our young people about the dangers in our community relating to the opioid epidemic doesn’t make much sense to me. I want to protect our young people.”
Other parents were supportive of Almeida’s decision, like Erica Williams, a mother of four.
“She works her butt of to spread awareness and save lives, so either way I’m all for it,” said Williams.
Almedia cites data collected in 2014 for the Youth Risk Behavior Survey of Macon County, which indicates that nearly two percent of the middle schoolers there admitted to using a needle to ingest a drug. From there, the numbers climb in the study, which also shows that 4.5 percent admitted to taking un-prescribed drugs to get high.
These figures increase dramatically at the high school level, Almeida said, reaching approximately 17.5 percent of students who took such drugs without a doctor’s prescription. Almost five percent of those students have admitted to doing prescription-level drugs twenty times or more--that’s sixty high schoolers that need treatment, and over 13 percent who are at-risk for possible overdose, she said.
“That’s a lot of young people," Almeida said, adding the sooner parents speak with their kids about drugs, the less at-risk they'll be, and the better off everyone will be. "Talk to your kids. These numbers are horrific.”
However, it's precisely that very conversation which so many parents feel they shouldn't have to have with their kids. Annie Weeks, a soon-to-be mother of two, echoes Thompson and Steiner.
"Some of us don't want our kids to think of those things just yet," she said. "Anything I can do to keep my daughter from growing up I'm going to do. I want her to enjoy as much of her childhood as much as she can, for as long as she can. Yeah I know that's probably being selfish, but she's gonna get plenty of opportunities to find out how this world really is eventually."
Macon County Sheriff Robert Holland weighed-in on the matter the day after the event, indicating in a statement that he has no issue with the distribution of Narcan in the community, nor the circulation of information regarding its use. Holland sympathized with the parents that were upset by Almeida's decoration, yet he also recognized that a need exists within the community for the services she provides.
"But at a 'trick-or-treat' event for kids," said Holland. "I seriously question: was it really necessary?"
In any case, Holland feels if local youth are to be exposed at a community event to the problems of drugs and addiction, his chief concern is ensuring that they be properly informed of the topics.
"It needs to be done in an environment where it can be explained as to why it is important," said Holland, adding that kids should be given context about things like overdose reversal kits, if they're going to be around them. "We assume that any child who received one is going to have an adult explain what this project is... And truth is not every kid who got one will have an adult take the time to do so."
While Holland recognizes Narcan's potential to save lives, he said his department doesn’t currently carry it, and the process of obtaining it has proven to be long and fraught with obstacles. For instance, the medicine requires specialized training before deputies can use it, and it comes with certain legal issues that Holland's department needs handle first, before it can even think of purchasing any kits.
"It's a process that requires our attorney to be involved with, and that process has been ongoing," said Holland. "We are currently at the final stage of implementing the departmental use of this product and potential lifesaving measure."
There's only a handful of Macon County agencies currently equipped to reverse overdoses, including Emergency Services, and the police departments of Franklin and Highlands. While EMS has an average response time of just under ten minutes in the county, and just under five minutes in Franklin, it's clear that equipping deputies with Narcan will significantly reduce the risk of fatal overdoses--as they're often the first to arrive on-scene.
Things do appear to be getting better in Macon County, however Almeida points out they're small improvements. While they're a good start, merely expanding narcan into new agencies, or raising awareness about the danger of opioids isn't enough. Despite all the progress the state's made in recent years combating the epidemic, she says communities like Macon County still have their work cut out for them.
"We've got such a long way to go still," she said. "We've accomplished a lot, and we're moving in the right direction. But we are still fundamentally the same, and that's our biggest problem."
As apprehensive or downright aggressive as some parents got about her offer for free narcan--it's clear to Almeida that far too many people in the community are still unwilling to face the opioid problem honestly. Furthermore, she believes that many parents are understandably in-denial about how early they should talk to their kids about drugs.
"I'm sure that these families from the community have known someone who has either overdosed, or has died from an overdose," she said, pointing out that more than seven percent of middle schoolers in Macon County claimed they were offered, sold, or given illegal drugs while on school property. "The fact that we're not talking to our young people about this now or even sooner doesn't make any sense to me. Of course we don't want to, nobody wants to. But we don't want them becoming at-risk, either."
At first Christopher Lynn, a father of five, was on-the-fence about Almeida's very public way of offering overdose reversal kits, however he changed his tune after hearing the statistics she cited.
"Middle school aged isn't really young enough, when you think about it," he said. "Think about how impressionable you were when you were... Ten, or eight. Think of all the things you really knew about and were curious of. You're kidding yourself if you think your kids are any different. We're parents, we have to be there for them before stuff like that comes up."
Almeida agrees, and urges any of the parents she may have upset on Halloween to come and talk to her.
“It isn’t only about the drug itself," she said. "It’s about all the things that a young person needs in order to be healthy and connected to a community that cares about them. Come down and talk to me. The coffee is always on.”
More than 60,000 opioid-related deaths occurred last year across the United States, according to the Center for Disease Control. Eight of those deaths occurred in Macon County, where 24 overdose reversal kits were administered. For BPR News, I’m Davin Eldridge.
Official Statement From Macon County Sheriff Robert Holland, 10/31/2017:
"Our officers don't carry naloxin or Narcan at this time. It's not as easy as just finding the funds and purchasing the product. Agency Policy and Procedure must be drafted as well as training of officers in the use of the product. It's a process that requires our attorney to be involved with and that process has been ongoing. We are currently at the final stage of implementing the departmental use of this product and potential lifesaving measure."