In response to the law enforcement around the state arresting 60 medical professionals and closing practices in relation to the opioid epidemic, Tennessee Save a Life is more dedicated than ever to providing resources to prevent addiction.
Coffee County’s Regional Overdose Prevention Specialists Joshua Crews and Stephen Mason, partnered with the Coffee County Anti-Drug Coalition, have been working for two years to provide education, resources and naloxone and Narcan training to the community and first responders.
“We want to make sure people have resources, if they are pain management patients that they have additional resources to reach out to so they don’t start reaching out to sources they shouldn’t be to get their medication,” Crews, a former paramedic, said. “We want to make sure that if they’re at risk for overdose or crisis services, that we have those available for them.”
In 2017, about 81,832 opioid prescriptions were filled in Coffee County, according to Crews. That is 1.5 prescriptions for every person in the county, based on census data. Crews added that 17,124 people received opioids for pain management. Of those, 12 people died from prescription-related overdoses.
According to the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, Tennessee was third in the nation for opioid prescriptions and 13th in the nation for overdose deaths.
“That’s why it’s so important that we get the resources out that we have now because if they are shutting down prescribers and people don’t know where to turn to get resources, or to get help, they’re going to start running to illicit substances like heroin,” Crews said.
Resources include Narcan/naloxone training.
“If they need Narcan or naloxone, we give that to them and give them the education they need,” he continued. “And if they are someone struggling with substance use disorder, we also have those resources available if they want to reach out and get treatment. We can help provide those resources to get them what they need.”
Narcan and naloxone are medications used to reverse overdoses. Narcan is administered through a nasal spray. It works by blocking opioid receptors and forcing the potential victim into withdrawal. Narcan is not a substitute for medical help and the person assisting the victim should call 911 immediately. The victim can still overdose once Narcan has been administered.
To learn how to use the drug, Crews and Mason offer a one hour training session that consists of opioid information, prevention, what to do and what not to do, how to use the medication and more. The training and medication are free. Narcan is safe to use and does not harm someone if opioids are not in their system.
“Also, the stigma surrounding Narcan in general,” Mason, a recovering addict, said. “Why is this medication free? Well this is just going to make them more likely to use. Well, no it’s not. People who are addicted to opioids fear withdrawal and not overdose. So the medication makes no difference to them. Actually, they’re pretty upset after they wake up and had medication administered to them.”
Mascon added they want to blanket the community to ensure people are prepared to help a potential overdose victim.
The pair work closely with law enforcement, the Coffee County Jail chaplain, the county anti-drug coalition and more.
“We try to relate that directly on a state level, a local level and a national level to the people and we try to bridge that gap and break the stigma between me, the first responder, who lived the life of a first responder, and people who have lived an addiction and we try to bridge, to cut down that fence,” Crews said.
Mason added that as someone who’s lived an addition, he can bridge that gap more easily than Crews can. Mason’s overdosed four times, been in an orange jail jumpsuit and that experience broke down the stigmas for him.
“How did this happen? It doesn’t matter. Recovery is possible. You can bounce back,” he said.
He later added, “Just having lived that experience has really helped with my job. You do something for so long, you become an expert. I believe 26 years, or at least 11 years personal experience, qualifies me to be able to work with individuals who do struggle and to understand those struggles on an internal level and not only know that, but the science that goes behind it. Being able to connect the emotions that stem from that is a big part of my job.”
How to get help
If people need help, reach out, Crews urged.
Tennessee Save a Life grant was created in 2017. Mason joined during its inception in 2017 and Crews followed in March 2018. They cover 13 counties. It is community-based and is not directly partnered with state departments.
Crews can be reached through email at Josh.Crews.67@Gmail.com or by calling 256-606-6143.
Mason can be reached through email at StephenOgMason@gmail.com or by calling 931-636-0147.
Other free hotlines for help include the Tennessee REDLINE for referral to addiction treatment services: 800-889-9789.
The Statewide Crisis Line for people experience a mental health crisis can be reached at 855-274-7471.
During the month of April, the state charged 60 medical care physicians who were all allegedly involved in spreading illegal opioids in their communities. One of them, Dr. Harrison Yang, 75, was from Manchester. He was charged with fraud in relation to healthcare.
“The Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (TDMHSAS) and the Division of TennCare have activated community-based substance abuse resources and statewide call lines to serve affected patients,” according to a written statement from TDMHSAS, the Tennessee Department of Health and the state Division of TennCare.
TDMHSAS announced it will be partnering with community-based coalitions, such as the Coffee County Anti-Drug Coalition, working to notify first responders and other contacts of clinic closures, according to the release.
A DOH representative does currently sit in on county anti-drug coalition meetings, according to Crews.