There is a golden opportunity to helping solve a dark problem — that of opioid addiction in America and the county which ranks number one in opioid-related deaths in Mississippi, DeSoto County.
The solution is a partnership between law enforcement, government, emergency personnel and the mental health and medical communities, according to Dr. Theodore Bender, Ph.D., the new CEO of Turning Point in Southaven, part of the Addiction Campuses network, based in Nashville, Tenn.
"We have a war to fight — the war against addiction," Bender said. "We can't do that unless we are armed with knowledge."
There have already been more than 35 overdose deaths within the past year in DeSoto County and a grim number totaling more than 250 overdose deaths related to opioids in 2016 statewide, rising to 234 fatalities by October of 2017.
"The mark is likely to surpass 300," said Bender, as he addressed members of the civic, political, medical and mental health communities during a "Go For The Gold in Recovery" event, marking Turning Point's two-year milestone on Friday.
"We have to mobilize now if we are going to make a difference," said Bender, who moved to Mississippi just 55 days ago.
The solution to treatment might be easier than preventing the problem which is due partly to overprescribed opioid drugs, according to Bender.
"In DeSoto County, there are enough opioid prescriptions to have every man, woman and child swallow a pill for 67 days straight," Bender said.
Nationwide, 64,000 people died from drug overdose in 2016, the approximate number who died from automobile accidents, according to Bender. "It's bad and getting worse. Synthetic opioids are among the chief causes of the pandemic sweeping the nation.
"Drugs are getting worse and more and more powerful," Bender said, adding that skin contact is even dangerous. "Our EMS workers have to make sure they don't come in contact with it," Bender said.
Bender said high-profile celebrities like Prince and Tom Petty are among the people whose careers and talents were silenced due to overdose.
"We need to look at how these drugs are prescribed," Bender said.
According to Bender, Mississippi is among the top five U.S. states for opioid prescriptions.
There are rumors of a major class action lawsuit planned against U.S. drug companies who over-prescribe painkillers and opioid medicines.
However, Bender was careful to say that America can't sue itself out of the opioid epidemic, adding that any lawsuit could take years and those addicted "can't wait years."
"We have to unite together as a community," Bender said. "We are fighting against one of the most powerful diseases known to man and billions and billions of dollars in the opioid industry."
Bender said at Turning Point, dialectal behavior therapy is used to help those addicted deal with issues and trauma which psychologically and chemically cause them to become addicts.
"We need to empower people to make safer choices," Bender said. "We need to arm them with knowledge."
Bender said drugs like Narcan, which can reverse the often fatal effects of overdose are saving lives. The life-saving drug has been placed in the hands of law enforcement.
"It's safe, effective and saves lives," Bender said. "We need more federal funding to fight this disease," he quickly added.
While cancer research receives billions, only $1.5 billion is spent annually for addiction which is killing more and more Americans.
"We have to hold pharmaceutical companies accountable," Bender said. "But we need to reach out to them. We need to invite them to the table. People want to sue and sue, and rightfully so. But that could take years and years and we don't have years and years."
Bender said Turning Point is among addiction treatment centers making huge strides to conquer addiction but it's going to take society as a whole to stem the tide.
"Here at Turning Point we are packed to the gills," Bender said. "We need more resources. We need to reduce the stigma associated with this disease."
District 4 Supervisor Lee Caldwell said she is impressed with the effort being mounted by Turning Point and other agencies.
Caldwell acknowledged the opioid addiction problem is profound.
"We like to be a leader in things but we don't want to be a leader in opioid deaths," Caldwell said. "We had 32-plus deaths last year. It will take bringing the whole community together. We can't arrest our way out of this."
Brian Sullivan, Director of Public Relations for Addiction Campuses in Nashville, said in just two years, Turning Point has graduated more than 743 individuals from its treatment programs and more than 42 states have been represented.
"We're growing exponentially," Sullivan said. "We're growing at the seams. We want to make sure that people have a safe place to go."
Robert Lee Long is Community Editor of the DeSoto Times-Tribune. He may be contacted at email@example.com or at 662-429-6397, Ext. 252.