WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS — Educators, prevention and treatment specialists, health care providers and more gathered for an educational lunch Thursday at The Greenbrier for the Game Changer Prevention and Education Luncheon.
Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Crouch told the audience that the pandemic year saw overdose deaths climb 48% after two years of significant decreases.
“What we’re seeing are issues related to isolation,” he said, noting that people lost access to support groups.
DHHR is working to get back into the communities and re-establish partnerships with local providers. It has quick-response teams in 28 counties that respond to overdose reports and establish relationships with the users to get them into treatment.
Game Changer is the statewide and national substance misuse prevention and education program for high schoolers, which Morgantown businessman Joe Boczek originated in 2019. This was the second day of a two-day event for Game Changer: There was a fundraiser dinner Wednesday night and a Game Changer Golf Classic Wednesday morning.
Christina Mullins, Bureau for Behavioral Health commissioner, echoed Crouch, saying suicide hotline calls were up 60% in the fourth quarter of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019 — a rise higher than any other state’s. And teen suicide mortality rose 34% from 2019 to 2020.
“The impact of substance abuse in West Virginia affects more than just the person with the disorder,” she said. “It impacts the entire family.”
Nearly half of the state’s foster care placements are tied to parental drug use.
“That makes comprehensive prevention programs critical,” she said. “Prevention works by decreasing risk factors. … Prevention strategies are sometimes a tough sell. They take time and tremendous effort.”
Dr. Rahul Gupta, former commissioner of the Bureau for Public Health and now chief medical and health officer for the March of Dimes, used sports imagery to make his points.
“It’s important that every step of your plan is dictated by knowing your opponent,” he said.
But, Gupta said, there are hidden opponents: Stigma and lack of knowledge of the disease of addiction. That ignorance leads people to hide their problem and not speak about it.
We need more compassion, he said — the same kind of compassion we have for those suffering from cancer or heart disease.
“I personally believe the launch of this event at this time is critical,” he said. “It’s safe to say that during the pandemic many young people have lost faith in their leaders, educators, communities, and we need to rebuild that faith and trust.”
Cece Brown told the story of she and her husband, Bobby, losing their son Ryan to a heroin overdose at the Charleston Town Center mall in 2014. Someone told them a hard truth: His death was preventable.
That led them to work with the state Legislature, which after two years created the Ryan Brown Addiction Prevention and Recovery Fund for treatment beds and programs, she said.
“The opposite of addiction is connection,” she said. Kids in schools need individual support. Game Changer can offer the overarching system and motivate people to be support for kids and families. “We’ve become so independent that we’ve lost our compassion at times.”
Among the several hundred in attendance Wednesday and Thursday were three from Morgantown.
Mon Health System President and CEO David Goldberg attended the Wednesday dinner and played golf Thursday. “It’s all about the kids,” he said. “Kids are our legacy.”
And of those leading Game Changer: “What they’re doing is giving us hope. This is awesome,” he said.
Gen. James Hoyer, retired state adjutant general and now director of the Joint Interagency Task Force handling the COVID response, said, “Clearly the issue we face in West Virginia and across the nation with addiction — this is a grassroots effort to get at the prevention piece to help so many of the young people of West Virginia who are our future. So how could you not be involved and participate?”
WVU President Gordon Gee echoed those who also said opioid addiction has escalated during the pandemic. “The purpose of this evening was to refocus on the fact that we do have serious problems with our young people that we need to address, and address now.”