Prescription Opioid, Heroin Abuse a Growing Problem in the Ozarks

Mar 27, 2017

CoxHealth Emergency
Credit Michele Skalicky

Opioids, both prescription and illicit, are the main driver of drug overdose deaths in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.   More than 33,000 people died in the United States in 2015 from opioid overdoses, the latest year for which numbers are available. 

Greene County had 97 overdose deaths in 2015, and, of those, 61 were opioid-related.

Opioids, which include heroin but also common painkillers such as morphine and hydrocodone, affect the part of the brain that controls breathing, and an overdose can lead to respiratory arrest

Jason Martin, trauma services and injury prevention outreach coordinator at CoxHealth, says Cox Emergency Services has been dispatched on a lot more calls recently involving heroin and other opioid overdoses. And they’re seeing more acute overdoses locally, too, where a person quits breathing the minute they take something.

"Because this heroin is so strong, and it's partnered with another lethal substance, they immediately take the drug, and in five minutes they completely quit breathing," said Martin.

Emergency Medical Services officials at CoxHealth and Mercy said they respond to around 15 overdose cases each week.  Data from the Missouri Department of Mental Health show there were 1,548 emergency room visits in Greene County in 2015 with drugs as the principal diagnosis.

And the addiction problem isn’t limited to adults.  Martin said more and more young people are using heroin, which is something he didn’t used to see.

"I know, personally, working with law enforcement and also working in schools that heroin is becoming more prevalent at parties," Martin said.  "The kids know what it is now to where five years ago they look at you kind of funny if you even mention heroin.  They had heard of it but didn't know anything really about it to where now it's something that they routinely see."

Springfield Police Lieutenant Eric Reece said heroin and other opioid addictions are having a big impact on our community.  For one thing, according to Reece, the police department is also seeing an increase in overdose cases.

"Heroin is a little different animal than some like...cocaine because it changes your physiological nature.  The addiction to it is very strong, and it also has the ability to, because of how they're getting it and how they're using it, they buy from different dealers, the chances of overdose are higher, Reece said.

Springfield is following the national trend in heroin abuse and seizures of heroin, according to Reece.  Many of those arrested tell officers their addiction began with prescription medicine.

"And they either lost the ability to get that from their doctor or it wasn't strong enough anymore, they're switching to heroin," said Reece.

According to Reece, seizures of heroin have gone up each year for the last five years, but they’ve really taken off this year.  That could be, in part, he said, due to a more focused investigative effort by the police department on the illegal drug.

Reece said they’re seeing an increase in crimes, including domestic violence, assaults and property crimes that are often linked to drug abuse.

"Anything really that we deal with on a criminal level seems to have a drug component to it" said Reece.  "Either someone is committing a crime in order to get property or money to buy more drugs or they're under the influence when they're committing crime."

To address the growing problem, the Springfield Police Department and other organizations in the Ozarks are working to educate young people in an effort to prevent them from ever using drugs.  For example, Martin goes into schools to present programs to students.  He usually leaves the topic up to the individual schools.

"The last couple of years we have had just simple requests for heroin (programs)," said Martin.

Five years ago, according to Martin, the biggest issues in schools were marijuana, prescription drugs and alcohol.  But now he often gets requests for presentations on prescription drugs and how they tie into heroin.

"Trying to get kids to understand that--because they think about heroin they think that, 'oh, it's bad,' but then prescription drugs they really don't see it's bad because it comes from their local pharmacy," Martin said.  "Trying to make them understand and educate them essentially it comes from the same plant.  It's the same thing.  Your body doesn't care which one it is and so to try to make them understand how dangerous these drugs are."

According to Martin, education is key since it’s your best chance to reach kids and try to get them to make better choices.

Burrell Behavioral Health offers a program in schools called “Too Good for Drugs &Violence” in all Branson schools and in several schools in Greene County.  The program promotes high school students’ pro-social skills, positive character traits and violence and drug-free norms.

Sally Gibson, vice-president of addiction services for Burrell, said the younger someone is when they start to use drugs, the more difficulty they’ll have in dealing with their addiction.  That’s because our brains continue growing until around age 25. 

"If I start using heroin at 14, as I'm growing and my brain develops my brain is developing on that drug," said Gibson.  "When I quit using that drug the brain's going to feel like something's wrong."

Because of that, she said someone who starts using at a young age may be on medication to help them deal with their addiction the rest of their lives, although health professionals are sometimes amazed by how the brain can heal.  Educating young people can help prevent them from ever trying drugs in the first place and thus prevent them from struggling with addiction.