Extension project focuses on education, outreach to address opioid crisis
As drug overdoses linked to opioids continue to rise, rural communities in particular struggle to control the epidemic.
More than 75 percent of the nearly 107,000 drug overdose deaths in 2021 involved an opioid, with higher rates of poverty and a lack of resources in rural areas being a significant factor in the alarming trend.
UGA Cooperative Extension is working with rural communities to address the issue, thanks in part to a three-year $350,000 Rural Health and Safety Education grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The three-year project builds on previously-funded efforts to address opioid misuse in rural communities and centers on community-based outreach, education and support.
“While the focus is primarily on prevention of opioid misuse, any time you talk about opioids, you’re going to need some knowledge of what to do if somebody is using, like a family member,” said principal investigator Diane Bales, a UGA Extension human development specialist and faculty member in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences. “That’s been a big part of this project because it’s such an important issue.”
Focus on education
The project targets six Georgia counties – Chattooga, Elbert, Mitchell, Tattnall, Telfair and Washington – and focuses largely on educating youth around decision-making and mental health, in addition to general education about opioids.
“It’s a lot of helping families build communication skills and helping youth build life skills,” Bales said, “trying to give the young person the skills they need to be able to make a decision and not just fall into whatever everybody else is doing.”
A key component of the outreach is a magazine, “Journeys,” distributed to middle school students through the 4-H networks in Washington and Elbert counties but soon to be rolled out statewide as part of the project.
“We talk about what opioids are, why they are dangerous, what do you do if you’re prescribed them and why you don’t take somebody else’s prescription,” Bales said, “as well as how you dispose of them.”
Another aspect of the project is the Youth Mental Health First Aid program, which utilizes a national curriculum that teaches adults who work with youth how to recognize the signs of a mental health or addiction challenge.
“It’s a lot like physical first aid – you’re not trying to teach somebody how to be a cardiac surgeon, but what to do until professional help is available,” Bales said. “Helping them find professional help is a major step in all of this.”
The project also will pilot test a program called teen Mental Health First Aid (tMHFA) in Washington County this year.
“It’s intended to teach 10th-12th graders what to do if a friend is showing signs of mental health and substance use challenges,” Bales said.
Addressing the stigma
While unemployment, isolation and a lack of resources often plague rural communities – Bales heard of law enforcement officers in southeast Georgia who often have to drive people 300 miles to reach a detox center – another obstacle is countering the stigma associated with drug abuse.
Bales said the project will address the issue by offering the Removing the Shame and Stigma of Addiction training to community members.
“There is a huge stigma around opioid issues,” she said. “The fact that some people become addicted to opioids doesn’t mean they are bad people, but in a lot of communities, that is the feeling.”
Georgeanne Cook, a FACS agent in Washington County, said the pandemic hit the county particularly hard and contributed to the rise in unemployment and drug abuse.
Local officials also have seen a rise in the use of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid about 100 times more potent than traditional opioids, that has contributed to several recent deaths.
In addition to a drug takeback program that collected and safely disposed of 150 pounds of unused drugs, Cook helped create community focus groups that brought together doctors, pharmacists, law enforcement officers, educators and others to find solutions to the problem.
“Everyone around the table knew somebody who had been affected by it,” she said. “Having those tough conversations nobody wants to have is a part of addressing it and I think it started this effort with Extension to figure out how we can help with the epidemic.”
As the project grows, Bales said the creation of Extension “hubs,” a central location that could offer a menu of services, is another long-term goal.
“Extension is a place people trust, especially in rural communities,” she said. “Being able to provide information, training and potentially locations for support groups – we’ve even explored telehealth from Extension offices – is a big piece of what we’re working on.”