Don’t Be Scared of Having Hard Conversations About Drug Abuse
By: Deborah Chen
National Night of Conversation is a nationwide initiative to urge families to start dinnertime conversations about drugs and alcohol. The desire is for students to know the risks, how to prevent them, and what healthy habits they can practice instead. These events take place all over the United States in many of the schools HealthCorps is in and can range from directly partnering with an event taking place at the school and inviting a partner organization to come and talk to those present about the opioid crisis and allowing people to ask questions afterwards like some of our fellow coordinators did in Oklahoma. To creating and handing out flyers to make sure that students, parents, and staff were well educated about National Night of Conversation and the dangers of substance abuse like what was done in Florida. To even having to change plans multiple times, but still making sure that their students had the best understanding of substance use and abuse as possible by taking them through a National Night of Conversation Café O’Yea and advertising another event that was happening at their school concerning the Opioid crisis in New Jersey. Here in Kentucky, we had the opportunity and blessing to partner with the Knox Promise Neighborhood to hold an event at Union College and bring two guest speakers in to talk to the juniors and seniors from all of the high schools in Knox County, Kentucky. One of those guest speakers was Dr. Jeffrey Howard, the Kentucky Public Health State Commissioner and the other was Danielle Matlock, a licensed clinical social worker. These two guest speakers told two completely different stories, but both centered around opioid and substance use and abuse.
Like many areas in the United States, Kentucky struggles with drug and substance use and abuse. In fact, the National Institute on Drug Abuse has stated that Kentucky ranks in the top 10 states with the highest opioid-related overdose deaths. (NIDA, 2018) These battles are being fought all over the state from cities like Louisville and Lexington to small towns like Barbourville, Corbin, and Hazard. While the loss of anyone is keenly felt, in towns like Barbourville which have a population of under 3,500 people, nearly everyone here personally knows someone who has struggled with or is currently struggling with substance use disorder or someone who has passed away due to it. During one of my first weeks in town, I was in a store and overheard a conversation in which one of the people mentioned that she would be going to yet another funeral this month because another person she knew had passed away due to an overdose. That moment has stuck with me in the months that had passed as a reminder of how rampant a problem substance abuse is. I personally cannot imagine what it must feel like having to go to funeral after funeral but for some people here, that’s rather the norm. And that’s really what National Night of Conversation is about – working to change what is perceived to be the norm through education and conversation.
While National Night of Conversation does not necessarily have a “set” date to it, most coordinators work to plan their event during the month of November. It’s during this month that our founder, Dr. Oz, typically has a segment concerning opioids, substance use, and substance abuse disorder as part of one of his shows. So, it simply makes the most sense to try and time our events with what is going on nationwide. That said, there is a LOT of planning that goes into NNOC and as such, Lisa Woodlee and I started talking about what we dreamed our National Night of Conversation event would be like in July – nearly 4 months before our actual event in November. We went through several iterations and ideas and dreams of what it could be, but it wasn’t until Lisa was watching the news one night and Dr. Howard just happened to be a guest on that segment, that plans started falling in place. Initially it was a bit of a stretch to imagine inviting someone like the Kentucky Department of Public Health Commissioner to come to Knox County to talk to students about the opioid epidemic, but as we learned more about Dr. Howard and his background, what at first looked simply like a dream, slowly became a reality.
Dr. Jeffrey Howard is originally from Eastern Kentucky and has a story so similar to that of many of my students. He came from a broken home where his parents struggled with substance abuse and in the end, had to leave his home if he wanted to pursue a brighter future. While he accounts his ability to leave as one of the reasons he was able to escape the cycle that is substance use and abuse, he puts higher merit in those who knew what he was going through and opened up their homes to him, inviting him over for dinner or just to spend time. It’s amazing what little acts like being there can do to change the course of someone’s life.
A few months after our National Night of Conversation event in November, we had a Café O’Yea on Nicotine and while many of the students ignored the brightly colored table, the information surrounding juuling, and the offer of a brain eraser to remind them that nicotine “can erase possibilities,” one student did not. That student, that one student, came up and stood there quietly reading the information that was on the board discussing facts like the price of nicotine and the increased risks associated with it. When asked, he told me that he had attended the NNOC event and that it, “was so much more engaging and interesting that I thought it was going to be” and that “Dr. Howard’s story still sticks with me and that I think about it sometime.” While I have no idea what his life may be like, I hope that through hearing Dr. Howard’s story, it has given him, and every other student that was there, the opportunity to see that even if they come from that background, they can still have a much, much brighter future and the hope for that future.
“Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Going into National Night of Conversation, I had one hope; that one student, just one, if they struggled with hating a relative or a friend because that person struggled with substance abuse, they would begin to understand that substance abuse is a disease that changes the way people think and the way they perceive value in the world. That they are sick and that rather than turning away from someone and cutting them completely out of their life, they would be able to, in some way, offer hope to that person. I’ve seen what happens to people when someone they know and loved dies, and I’ve seen the regret they’ve had when they struggle with grief and guilt and begin to see and remember all of the time they could have spent with that person and chose not to. That grief and guilt is so powerful that I don’t think it ever truly goes away; it fades with time, but is still so sharp when it stings and threatens to overwhelm someone unexpectedly. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, especially not a student. And that is why it was so powerful to hear from Dr. Howard and hear his call to action for students. To those students who came from homes where their parents struggled with substance abuse and use, he urged them to speak to a trusted adult or friend for support and to those who did not face those struggles, he urged them to reach out a hand of support to those who they knew did. So often those who struggle with substance abuse and use and those who come from “broken homes” struggle with the stigma associated with that disorder; stigma they place on themselves and stigma others place on them.
Truthfully, this article was supposed to come out in November, and yet, here we at end of May, at the end of my time with HealthCorps, finally publishing it. The thing is, for many students who come from homes where substance abuse and use is not just a thing you learn about at school, but rather something seen firsthand, spending one day or one week out the year thinking about and talking about the impacts substance use and abuse has on one’s lives, isn’t enough. This is something that must be addressed, readdressed, and brought up even when we may feel uncomfortable and awkward. Just because November ends, doesn’t mean the conversation around substance use and abuse should as well. So, if you are someone who this topic is relevant and relatable to, don’t be afraid to speak to a trusted adult – they love you and want to help. And to those who know someone, see if you can be like those who Dr. Howard thanks for helping him and be there for them.