Carl Vinson Institute Helps State Agency Battle Georgia’s Opioid Abuse Epidemic

Roger Nielsen

Tuesday, May 8th, 2018

Steve Spivey was so impressed by what he learned at a recent educational conference on Georgia’s opioid epidemic that he began recruiting the instructors to lead training sessions he envisions holding throughout the state.

Many of Spivey’s colleagues were equally fired up by speakers at the Opioid Learning Collaborative in Cartersville, one of three conferences the Carl Vinson Institute of Government coordinated to help the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities tackle Georgia’s opioid crisis.

“I attended the conference to see how we could battle this wildfire of opioids that is sweeping across the country and killing our people,” said Spivey, chair of DBHDD citizen advisory council.

Hundreds of counselors, educators, health care providers and social workers attended conferences in Cartersville, Macon and Stone Mountain to better understand addiction from a pharmacological and neurological perspective and learn about medication-assisted treatment. The sessions brought together the people who, in their jobs, are most likely to come in contact with  individuals who struggle with opioid misuse.

“The Institute played a key role in organizing a way for front-line service providers to learn more about this deadly epidemic and exchange ideas and wisdom,” said Institute Director Laura Meadows. “It’s the kind of outreach that’s integral to the Institute’s mission of applying UGA’s resources to address a critical issue.”

Opioids include painkillers like morphine, hydrocodone and oxycodone, all legal by prescription. Illegal drugs like heroin also are part of the opioid family.

Overdoses on these addictive drugs claimed the lives of 42,000 Americans in 2016, including 929 Georgians. DBHDD, charged with developing an opioid prevention, treatment and recovery strategy, engaged the Institute of Government to help implement the training portion of the plan.

The Institute worked with the Office of Addictive Diseases at DBHDD to organize the training conferences for health professionals and treatment providers and secured expert speakers from the Opioid Treatment Providers of Georgia organization and the UGA College of Pharmacy.

Joelyn Alfred, conference chair for OTPG, said educating community leaders like Spivey is a critical first step in helping Georgia succeed in its response to the opioid epidemic. “Once you understand the scope of this crisis, then you can start to do something about it,” Alfred said.

The conferences were designed to provide information about referrals for treatment and recovery services to community public health officials, treatment and recovery professionals, state agency staff, social workers and educators, like Jo Ellen Hancock, a parent mentor in Cherokee County schools.

“The information I learned is critical to pretty much everything I do,” Hancock said. “I do family engagement, and the opioid crisis is part of it. It’s all about prevention and early intervention. The earlier we can get that across, the better.”

DBHDD received an $11.8 million federal grant to support prevention, treatment and recovery and wants to move quickly to provide training and expand services and community education across Georgia, said DBHDD Commissioner Judy Fitzgerald.

“Our system was not fully equipped to handle the volume and scope of this emerging crisis,” Fitzgerald said. “The grant has been a really important opportunity to put some new services and expanded services into place immediately.”

The state also is providing support to expand MAT programs that use medications such as methadone, buprenorphine and Vivitrol as part of a comprehensive treatment plan coupled with counseling and recovery support. DBHDD established a 24-hour hotline for people who need help, 1 (844) 326-5400. Schools are getting prevention education toolkits, and DBHDD supplies first responders with naloxone, a drug that reduces overdose deaths by counteracting the effects of opioids.

Merrill Norton, a UGA pharmacy professor and certified addiction counselor, led sessions at the training conferences on how MAT drugs work and how other drugs can interact with opioids. He emphasized that addiction is a disease that can be treated.

Naloxone is an important tool for paramedics, police and other first responders, Norton said, because “you can’t treat people if they’re dead.”

Danny Yearwood, chaplain and inmate advocate with the Stephens County Sheriff’s Office, learned how opioids interact with other drugs at a conference session. In recovery since 2005, Yearwood is outspoken in favoring abstinence-based treatment over MAT, but said he still gleaned valuable knowledge from the presenters. “I always find nuggets in training conferences that I can apply to my community,” he said.

Beverly Johnson, who manages the Institute of Government’s partnership with DBHDD, said UGA is a committed partner in Georgia’s campaign to help people get treatment that leads to recovery. “This shows our determination to reach out and build a healthier, more productive state,” Johnson said.