It’s hard to pick up a news source these days without seeing a reference to the epidemic of drug overdose deaths here in our country. In 2017, more than 72,000 Americans died from a drug overdose. That number translates to 197 people a day. That counts as a national tragedy and epidemic for sure particularly since an overwhelming majority of these overdose deaths involve an opioid. Rural America can be particularly hard hit given the lack of some support networks that are sometimes easier to find in an urban setting and certainly a more anonymous effort is easier to achieve when using some of those resources that might be available – everyone knows what everyone’s car looks like and places a most unfortunate and unfair stigma in a small community with people seeking help.
Many NTCA members remember Anne Hazlett, former head of Rural Development at USDA and a passionate advocate for rural America. Anne has been a frequent visitor to NTCA meetings and a big fan of the work that NTCA members do in their community. Anne recently made a career move that she is equally passionate about – serving as the Senior Advisor for Rural Affairs for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Anne invited me over to her new digs recently to chat with herself and her boss, James Carroll, Director of the NDCP. We talked about how this drug epidemic is impacting rural communities, the limited resources and cutting short the future of many young people who are the future leaders for these communities and how might there be more creative partnering with local leaders and solution providers. One thing they are doing is creating a local guide that will help rural leaders navigate the many federal programs available to address the addiction crisis in small towns. We also pivoted to the unique role that broadband access can have in battling this crisis. In areas where there are limited resources on the ground, Carroll and Hazlett are huge advocates of looking to access mental health resources through telemedicine and broadband infrastructure programs. Just a few days before our meeting, Anne had been in Kentucky visiting kids at a summer camp in a small community who had all been impacted by addiction issues in their families. Ironically, and very sadly, while she was there 8 adults in the community were actually arrested for drug related issues. The cycle continues and the next generation is impacted. As Anne was driving back to the airport in Kentucky, she thought of Keith Gabbard at PRTC and the work he has done with his team creating a Virtual Living Room treatment option for the Vets in McGee, Kentucky and pondered how infrastructure efforts like PRTC’s could also pivot to be helpful on the addiction battle lines. More to follow there and more discussions to be had. I think that NTCA and our members can play a key role in areas where the support needed is simply not available and where technology might fill a void.
Clearly, we as a nation cannot continue to stand by and do nothing. From every race, demographic, income level, religion and creed – we are impacted. Just sharing a little bit on the personal side, my family lost our loving nephew Joshua this past May to an opioid overdose, on his 29th birthday. Josh and I had been texting one another just days before on what he might want or need for his birthday celebration given his status as a newlywed who had returned to school. He had sounded like he was looking forward to what the future would bring and yet he could not kick the devil of addiction that had followed him nearly half of his young life. What a waste, what sadness, what devastation for my brother to lose his only child and for our entire family looking for ways to make sense of the loss and pick up the pieces in a constructive way. I know I am not alone in our story and think we can all do better to help those in need.