Local officials believe education can be an important factor to prevent patients from prescription drug addiction.
An estimated 221,000 Tennessee residents have used prescription opioids in the past year without medical reasons, according to the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. Of that 221,000, an estimated 69,100 suffer from addiction and require treatment.
“Addiction, it doesn’t discriminate,” Brent Clements, Addiction Campuses chief executive officer, said. “We’re seeing folks from all walks. A majority of our business is middle class America, you know, mom, dad, soccer moms, attorney, nurse, hooked on prescription pain meds.”
Addiction Campuses is stationed in Brentwood, and the organization specializes in alcohol, illegal drug and prescription drug addiction treatments. Clements said the greater Knoxville area has the fourth highest traffic flow to the treatment provider’s website for those seeking help.
“The Loudon County area is one of the highest traffic areas in the state of Tennessee,” Clements said. “For us, we get just about as many visits from that area as we do in middle Tennessee, which is obviously much larger.”
Recently, Clements said his company sent a mobile crisis unit into the area to assist a company that fired 15-16 employees because of prescription drug abuse. Addiction Campuses works to educate people on how to cope with similar situations, where, instead of firing the individuals and putting the company in a bind, the company could seek help for its employees, he said.
“Obviously, we’d like to catch it before it gets to that stage, but it’s hard to replace those employees,” he said. “... But that specific company, it had gotten too far. And we don’t ever like to see them lay off the employees. Obviously, these are individuals that are struggling with the disease so they need to get help, not be put back out on the street.”
Hilda Phipps, director of adult addiction services at Helen Ross McNabb Center, agreed with Clements that education can prove beneficial.
“I think prevention and education certainly have a place, but what I would say is that there are so many factors that go into the creation of an addict if you will — brain chemistry, biology, genetics, family history, as well as environmental factors,” she said. “So, the problem is that one person might go to a doctor, get a prescription for pain pills and never have a problem, finish the bottle or not finish the bottle and never think about it.
“But another person that has all those risk factors might do the same thing and might become physically and/or psychologically dependent without even realizing,” Phipps added.
Last year, the rehabilitation center assisted 42 patients in Loudon County with addiction-related services, which is eight more patients than the year before, she said. Over the 16-county region, Phipps said there were 1,500 admissions for residential and detoxification treatment.
“I think it’s true that people are attempting to treat their physical pain, and opioids are still widely prescribed even though we have gotten a lot of education, and I think they can be very effective for treating pain,” she said. “But they just happen to carry such a potential for addiction that while they work well as intended, but then as I’ve said then there are unintended consequences and people are attempting to mask their pain, be that their physical pain or their emotional pain.”
Peninsula Outpatient Center Medical Director John Kupfner, who also serves as a psychiatrist, said education is paramount for those seeking pain relief.
“Education is the most important thing before the addiction has started, when we’re prescribing medications or if you’re taking medications that may be addictive, having the doctor explain or asking the doctor how long can I take this before I become addicted to it is a great question,” he said. “Most people, when they have that information, don’t overtake their medicine or take longer than they need to. Education, once you’re already physically addicted, is a particular challenge.”
Kupfner said common pills that are abused in the area are OxyContin, Roxicodone and Xanax because of their fast-acting ability.
“The ones that your brain feels immediately and cross the blood brain barrier quickest are the ones that are the most highly addictive, and those have the worst withdrawals,” Kupfner said.
Kupfner said withdrawing from these pills is dangerous because it could cause blood pressure spikes, seizures or a stoppage in breathing. To prevent this from occurring, he said Peninsula slowly tapers off patients to ease the detoxification process.
“If you’re in withdrawal, you need to go to the emergency room, and you might need to be hospitalized and medically monitored during your detox period,” he said. “So if you’re just on them and want to get off of them, we have many solutions to help you get off of them.”
Rehabilitation takes about a month for patients, he said. Once patients are clean, a number of treatment programs are offered to maintain sobriety.
Phipps said Helen Ross McNabb Center offers therapy, chemical dependency education and life skills training.
“We also do introduction to Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous because we believe that when they leave treatment that’s really just the beginning of recovery, and we being a chronic illness it requires lifelong dedication, and so we introduce them to those programs because once they get out of treatment, AA is completely free and at no cost to them,” she said.
Helen Ross McNabb Center in Lenoir City can be reached at 865-635-0242. Peninsula Behavioral Health can be reached at 865-970-9800. A support hotline for Addiction Campuses is 1-888-614-2251.
In June, Gov. Bill Haslam and state officials rolled out a seven-step plan, called Prescription for Success, in an attempt to lessen prescription drug abuse. Phipps said the state’s attempts to curb drug abuse could have “unintended consequences,” such as a rise in heroin addiction.
“That Tennessee — and Loudon County is a big part of that — is right on the edge of having a major heroin epidemic,” Clements said. “The leading indicators are there. Everything that we’re doing and everything that we’re not doing as a state are challenging to us. I mean we look at what happened in the Northeast two years ago, and it’s going to happen in Tennessee over the next six to eight months.”
Phipps said while she did not know how soon heroin would become more of an issue locally, she did agree that the problem could be on its way. About one-fifth of the treatment center’s calls now are for heroin addiction, she said.
“I’m concerned about it because heroin use then brings not only the dangers of the drug itself but also the alterations that are done to it,” Phipps said. “It’s not a pharmaceutical. It’s in drug cartels, in the underground if you will, and it can be cut with any number of things that can cause other serious issues like overdose. I do think we’ll see increases in overdose deaths.”
Kupfner said heroin use has not been an issue at Peninsula Hospital. “I definitely have fears that that’s going to be the next wave, which that has not happened yet,” he said. “It hasn’t been showing up anymore than it did before. There’s still too many pills out there. But, yeah, when you cut off the supply of the legal ... medications that are being abused, then addicts (are) going to go to illicit means to get them, meaning heroin is an option.”