Fighting the opioid crisis in Walton County

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WALTON COUNTY, Fla. (WJHG/WECP) - Opioid abuse doesn't discriminate, and now it's become enough of an issue in Walton County to draw the attention of local officials and the community.

Tuesday night, the Walton County Health Department hosted a town hall meeting at Freeport High School about opioid usage.

"I think the purpose of this is to get the information out to the community, discuss what we know as a national trend, an epidemic, the opioid crisis. But specifically what we can do here in Walton County to try and mitigate that and really the sharing of information is crucial both with the public and with other agencies," Walton County Sheriff Michael Adkinson said.

According to the Drug Free American Foundation, the current opioid epidemic in the U.S has been universally recognized as one of the most important public health issues to date with a 200 percent increase since 2000.

"Unintentional poisoning is the number one cause of death in ages 25 to 65 in this country and that's a significant range of people and it's unintentional poisoning which includes overdose death," Consultant Pharmacist Denise Barter said.

So, for the past two days, local health officials have been working to bring the issue to the forefront and also address the addiction problem in Walton County.

"So one of the things that it does to bring people together is to just have people in the room that have a common goal and these are all people that work in an environment that they want to protect our community, they want to protect our kids, they want to protect other community members, so one showing them that they're not alone and fighting this issue and then to give them what they need, the education they need, the resources they need in the community to help it make the biggest impact," Executive Director of Drug Free American Foundation Amy Ronshausen said.

"I think it's critical that our level of support and our level of involvement and our willingness to do something about it other than just lock people up, you know, to try and find an answer that is again both preventative and mitigates the impact," Adkinson said.

Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show approximately 92 million adults in America use prescription opioids, and 11.5 million of them misuse the drug according to the Drug Free American Foundation.

"These are everyday folks who are being impacted by this crisis. It's your neighbors, it's your kids, it's your aunts and uncle. It's not an addict that you picture as a junkie in an alley somewhere," Ronshausen said.

With more than 42,000 deaths from opioid overdoses in 2016 according to the Florida Medical Examiner's Office, officials say the first step to taking action against the epidemic is to educate people.

"It's incredibly significant and it touches on many things that maybe the general public aren't aware. So many traffic accidents are caused by opioid addictions, people driving under the influence. The suicide epidemic with 20 some odd people in Walton County in the last year. The mental health component. So there are a lot of elements that maybe you don't traditionally think of as being part of the opioid crisis that we're dealing with every day and it's important for the public to understand that," Adkinson said.

"We want to make sure that our kids know enough about the substances that they choose not to use them in the first place and for the people who are already out there using them we want to give me the services they need so they can recover and get back into society as productive members," Ronshausen stated. "Do they need access to treatment? Do they know where to go for treatment? They need information on how to assess if someone is in an overdose situation and what do they do if someone is overdosing how did they react."

"Obviously, the effects of this crisis are allegiant. To be quite frank with you it's everything from our drain on the medical services to the child protective services to the county jail. Just really the way it destroys lives. So anything we can do, a holistic approach to reduce the impact is critical," Sheriff Adkinson added.

Organizers say it takes a team effort to keep a community healthy and promote a drug-free environment.

"One component is being the school system, law enforcement, health, and we can't do it by ourself and it takes everybody and we want to know what people think so we'll know how to deal with it," Health Officer for Walton County Department of Health Holly Holt said.

"Intervention and prevention are always better than rehabilitation. Obviously, we need a rehabilitation component, there is no question about that but at the same time we need to figure out how to stop the influx of new addicts. So that's what we're really hoping to find; some methodology where we at the Sheriff's Office can work together with other agencies to prevent this before it becomes a problem," Adkinson said.

"In the US alone it said it's reported to be about... it's in the millions of people who have an opiate addiction. The fallacy about that, trying to get numbers, is these people don't talk about this further, [they're] in denial of this and we don't have just opioids, you very, very rarely find someone that's just an alcoholic or just an opioid addict or just a meth addict. There's a combination of these drugs and now it's all complicated because the products being sold on the streets have been tainted with other products," Barter said.

Recently, the epidemic was declared a health crisis by not only President Trump but also by Florida Governor Rick Scott.

As a result, the Walton County Health Department received a federal grant allowing them to spend $50,000 on training and education specifically for opioid usage.

"There's not a magic pill for addiction so we were talking about a lot of different ways that we're going to have to come at the disease of addiction and to assist people with breaking that cycle," Barter said.

"It is a long-term mission we just started a few months ago knowing that we were having some grant money coming down but it is going to take us a while to get to the other side of it but we're optimistic," Holt said.

Tuesday's town hall meeting allowed the public to ask questions, find resources, and offer ideas of what they need.

The problem doesn't just lie in Walton County, Congressman Matt Gaetz was also in Crestview Tuesday for another opioid meeting, where they are also seeking solutions as well.