'Norwich Unhooked' campaign to tackle rising prescription drug misuse

Norwich — When the Southeastern Regional Action Council surveyed just more than 2,000 city high school and middle school students in the spring of 2015, some surprising results came back from the roughly 1,440 who were Norwich residents.

For the first time, more of the students reported having used prescription drugs in the past 30 days than alcohol or marijuana.

More females reported nonmedical use of prescription drugs than males.

Youth who checked off at least one mental health indicator — such as having seriously considered suicide or having been hit by a romantic partner — were about three times more likely to say they had used a medication not prescribed to them.

And the most commonly misused type of prescription drug? Pain medications.

Given the region’s escalating struggle with opioids — the city saw a 100 percent jump in opioid-related overdose deaths from 2015 to 2016 — the numbers were cause for concern.

The city set to work. The Norwich Prevention Council, formerly focused largely on alcohol and tobacco use, added emphasis on opioids. A new task force was formed to streamline the work of Norwich’s health, government and law enforcement entities. And the city landed one of eight Partnerships for Success grants the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services awarded last fall.

It’s thanks to the five-year grant that the city’s latest initiative — a multifaceted campaign dubbed Norwich Unhooked — is set to launch this fall.

“Sometimes it’s hard for people to understand prevention,” said Angela Duhaime, who used to work for SERAC. “If it never happened, how can we prove we stopped it? But we know from dozens of studies that the earlier that you’re introduced to substance use, the higher risk you have for long-term use and addiction.”

Since December, Duhaime has been working as coordinator of the city’s Partnership for Success grant, charged with figuring out how best to turn the survey numbers into action.

According to her recently completed strategic plan, the effort will seek foremost to alert students to the dangers surrounding nonmedical prescription drug use. Notably, about one in five city students surveyed two years ago said they didn’t know how risky it is to take a medication not prescribed to them. Just 54 percent suggested the behavior carried “great risk.”

To Duhaime, those numbers were surprising but also promising.

“If you’re looking at marijuana, there’s a high rate of youth reporting there’s no risk associated with that,” she began. “When you have 20 percent saying they don’t know (about prescription drugs’ risk), it’s like they’re on the fence. That’s an opportunity for us.”

Duhaime has enlisted the services of D2 Media Solutions, a Day Publishing Co. department that specializes in marketing services for outside businesses, to help bring Norwich Unhooked to life.

She’s hoping the initiative will use posters, a website and other techniques to spread far and wide a message that’s informative, not ominous.

“I think a lot of campaigns are just, ‘Don’t do drugs, they’re bad for you,’” Duhaime said. “But we already know that. I don’t want the community to feel paralyzed by the problem. I want to create something more hopeful.”

Already, students have played a role in the messaging. It was members of the regional Adolescent Learning and Leadership Institute, or ALLI, who first were working with the don’t-get-hooked concept, Duhaime said.

“As that conversation evolved, it became Norwich Unhooked,” she explained.

Duhaime also plans to use the Partnership for Success grant money, which will total $690,470 over five years, to educate residents and officials across Norwich and to address the subgroups that stood out in SERAC’s 2015 survey.

For the female students, for example, Duhaime brought on a part-time peer advocate. She’ll spend time in the schools attempting to learn why females are reporting more nonmedical prescription drug use and what can be done to alleviate the use.

Additionally, because mental health indicators corresponded with higher nonmedical use of prescriptions, Duhaime is hoping professionals working with students can add a layer that addresses substance abuse. In her eyes, that could mean a screening where students who show elevated risk of substance abuse are referred to a specialist in that realm. It also could mean introducing students earlier on to the impact substance abuse can have on one's brain and body.

By the end of the grant period, Duhaime hopes closer to 60 percent of students realize there’s great risk in abusing prescription medications, rather than 54. Her plan also calls for a decrease in the number of youth who report any mental health indicator: from 35.3 percent in 2015 to 30 percent in 2020.

They’re lofty goals. For perspective, only 60 percent of city youth said smoking a pack or more of cigarettes daily carries great risk. But if anywhere can pull it off, it’s Norwich, Duhaime said.

“In other areas, there’s a lot of, ‘We don’t have that problem here.’ There’s denial,” Duhaime said. “I don’t see that in Norwich. In fact, I have more community members coming up to me going, ‘We have a problem here. What can we do?’”

l.boyle@theday.com

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