It’s a simple question, yet when Elizabeth Piper, health educator for Jewish Community Services (JCS), asks it to a room full of high school students, she is always amazed at the response.
“I go into a number of private school classrooms to talk about substance abuse and the opioid epidemic,” she said, “and when I ask the students how many of them know someone who has struggled with opioids or overdose, their response always takes me by surprise.”
Last year, Maryland experienced more than 1,500 opioid-related deaths from January to September alone. And many of those overdoses were in the Jewish community. As opioid addiction plays out in our backyard, and as Jewish teen and adult deaths due to overdose occur on a regular basis, JCS is committed to tackling the crisis head-on.
From private schools to Jewish organizations, from public forums to podcasts, the agency is implementing a full-court preventive education program to address this public health concern.
With numbers that are astonishing — more Americans died of drug overdoses last year than from car accidents, homicides, and suicides combined — providing preventive education is a critical component to helping raise awareness of prescription and non-prescription drug misuse.
The goals of the program are multifold. JCS, an agency of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, wants to help community members identify signs of opioid misuse, decrease the stigma of discussing addiction, and work to change a culture in which pain medication is so readily available.
At the core of its efforts are the organization’s Healthy Choices school initiative, one hour and multi-day age-appropriate programs. The organization has worked in a number of private schools, including Garrison Forest, St. Paul’s, Bryn Mawr, and the Friends School.
For more than 30 years, JCS has offered substance abuse and Healthy Choices programs to schools, but in recent years they have increased their focus on opioids.
“I give these students examples of the pros of opioid use following a surgery to the cons of how easy it is to develop tolerance and its potential for addiction,” explains Piper. She adds that the program is not a textbook conversation, but often brings in recovering addicts or presents real-world scenarios to help students focus on how they would handle situations. For example, she asks students to imagine they are at a party with friends, and teens from another school offer them pills. Or, she asks them what they would do if they found someone who took too much of a substance.
Piper, whose mother battled addiction, often shares her personal story.
“A lot of people often come up to me after my presentations telling me about having similar personal stories and how helpful it is to hear from someone who survived the experience and became a strong, resilient person,” she says.
In the 30 years since he’s been involved with JCS and drug prevention education, Howard Reznick, manager of prevention education for JCS, has seen a shift in students willing to talk about drug abuse. Teens, he says, are much more forthright discussing this issue and sharing situations as long as it’s not about themselves.
Yet, because of the enormity of the crisis, the organization is going beyond teens and bringing its message to the broader community. This past fall, JCS, in partnership with Sol Levinson & Bros., Inc. Funeral Home, the Baltimore Board of Rabbis, and the Edward A. Myerberg Center, held the well-attended program, “Confronting the Opioid Epidemic: A Free Community Forum.”
“It is so easy to get hooked on pain medication and we know that it is not confined to teens and young adults. In fact, one of the fastest-growing demographics is women over 50. That’s why it is critical we engage the entire community, providing important information on opioid misuse and taking the stigma out of discussing this issue,” says Reznick.
As part of the community effort, JCS also introduced four powerful podcasts that tell personal stories of addiction. Entitled “Hooked,” these episodes feature community members who share their experiences, from the addicts who hit bottom and are now in recovery, to the parents’ heartbreaking stories of watching their children consumed by addiction.
These programs are merely part of JCS’ overall commitment to helping the community overcome addiction. Not only does the organization provide counseling for family members, but the organization’s trained counselors have strong relationships with drug treatment centers and can effectively refer addicts to the right facility, whether inpatient or intensive outpatient.
Moving forward, JCS expects to expand its school partnerships to reach young people and their families as early as possible. And, they hope to plan additional community forums to reach as wide an audience as possible.
This content was originally published on www.theassociated.org.
By Rochelle Eisenberg
Rochelle Eisenberg works for The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.