The kids aren’t all right: Health advocates warn of opioid epidemic’s effects on children
HUNTINGTON — Leaders in the recovery community met in Huntington this week for a conference to discuss how substance use disorder is causing multigenerational trauma, specifically for West Virginia’s youth.
Healthy Connections, an initiative of Marshall Health’s addiction medicine services, was joined by West Virginia Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Coalition Parents, community members and professionals at the Marshall University Medical Center on Thursday to highlight evidence-based solutions to substance use and trauma.
Dubbed “The Kids Aren’t Alright: A Call to Action,” the event was presented to emphasize the mental and physical effects the opioid epidemic is having on the next generation.
Discussions pointed to research by Dr. Todd Davies, associate director of research and development in the Division of Addiction Sciences at the Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine, showing area children are experiencing trauma at a higher rate than previously believed, which leads to a higher chance of that person having medical issues in adulthood.
Dr. Lyn M. O’Connell, associate director for the Division of Addiction Sciences, said while the recovery community doesn’t like to frame things in a negative light, the event acted as a call to action.
“The kids aren’t all right, but we have the resources, we have the ability, we have the skills, we have the experts, we have the families, we have the people in recovery and we can do a lot,” she said. “But we all need to do it together, and we need to do it as we’re moving forward.”
A person with at least four adverse or traumatic experiences is twice as likely to suffer from health complications and stress, which could manifest through things such as drug usage, heart disease, suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The ACE score test was created to determine a person’s risk factor by tallying how many adverse childhood traumas — such as abuse and neglect — the person has experienced. The higher the score, the higher at risk the person is to develop health issues.
A 2015 report released by the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources said there was an average number of 1.4 ACE scores reported among West Virginia adults, meaning they had at least one adverse experience during their childhood. Of those tested, 13.8% had four or more.
Davies said his research shows numbers are at a much more alarming level, despite his being able to interpret numbers of only three adverse childhood experiences so far.
“Here locally, of the children born since 2013, we have data that at least 43.1 percent have an ACE score of 2 or greater. Almost 10 percent have a score of 3 or more,” he said, noting about 83% have a score of at least one adverse childhood experience.
Davies said the numbers don’t necessarily show an explosion in adverse childhood experiences, but they give a more accurate picture of an area that had previously not been well measured because it’s hard to track.
A coalition of clinical providers in the area — including Marshall Health, Valley Health, Mountain Health Network and Recovery Point — has created a data system called the West Virginia Community Addiction Data System, where they can identify the level of adverse childhood experiences in the community.
The data isn’t used to track individuals, but rather to determine at-risk populations to identify points of interviewing so resources can more appropriately be allocated to address the crisis. The key is to get involved with children before they enter school, at which point the trauma has already happened.
Having the data in local control allows the recovery community to not only act faster but to also have a more accurate impact, which is critical for early intervention and setting a child up for success, he said.
“Just like when we were first approaching the addiction epidemic, what we are doing with the data system and the research I am doing is we are controlling our own data and our own message,” Davies said.
Healthy Connections Director Jennifer Mills Price said the goal of Healthy Connections, a coalition of 20 community agencies, is that every infant and toddler being raised in families struggling with substance use disorder will have the opportunity to build a healthy brain through healthy relationships with caregivers and family members.
To do that, bonding with their family is of utmost importance for a child’s development.
West Virginia has approximately 7,000 children living in foster care. The state has a rate of removal from a household at three times higher than the national average, 85% of which involved drug use, Mills Price said.
In discussing the extent of the opioid crisis in the community, Huntington Mayor Steve Williams said the extent of the issue isn’t what is seen today.
“If there was never, ever another opioid tablet distributed or if there was never, ever another gram of heroin or fentanyl that was trafficked and all of it stopped right now, we would still be dealing with the outcomes of this for the next five decades,” he said.
Mills Price said being free of substance abuse is just one aspect of recovery.
“That recovery is possible and childhood trauma can come back up, so treatment is not a one-and-done solution,” she said. “We really want to help people in recovery get back to their community and to be involved in these conversations.”
Through lawsuits filed against drug firms, regional partners have come up with a $2.6 billion, 30-year plan that would abate the opioid crisis in Cabell County, but funding to fully implement it is lacking. Williams said the only way to find the way out of it is for the community to join together.
More information about the organization can be found at healthyconnectionswv.org.
Courtney Hessler is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch, primarily covering Marshall University. Follow her on Facebook.com/CHesslerHD and via Twitter @HesslerHD.