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Game Changer group looks to prevent youth opioid addiction

Updated: May. 27, 2021 at 7:25 PM EDT
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GREENBRIER COUNTY, W.Va. (WSAZ) - A new group is using the game of golf and the wisdom of coaches to fight drug addiction by creating a game plan.

Game Changer, a group working to help prevent young people from becoming victims of the opioid epidemic, partnered with the West Virginia Drug Intervention Institute and a number of other organizations for the first annual West Virginia Game Changer Golf Classic at the Greenbrier.

The two-day fundraising event included Alabama head football coach Nick Saban and other state and national leaders talking about ideas to support children through the drug crisis.

Organizers said families, friends and schools need to have an open conversation about working together to notice the impact of drugs on children. Their goal is to create systems and structures, known as a “game plan,” to get people through tough situations and prevent them from using the highly addictive opioids.

“I will give you that there are some bad actors, clearly that need a hard foul,” Dr. Rahul Gupta said about facing the invisible opponent of addiction. “There is no doubt about that. We also have to look at what are the non-obvious hidden opponents that exist in this particular crisis that we might not be seeing. Well, what are those? Those opponents are sometimes things like stigma, lack of knowledge, lack of curiosity about the disease of addiction. That causes a lot of people to go under and hide their problem and not speak about it.”

Gupta said addiction has to be accepted by society just like other diseases, such as cancer and diabetes, to allow for compassion toward people in recovery. He added that not everyone can be taught about opioids in the same way, and children need a different approach to understand the dangers of these drugs.

“Talk about how does it affect our relationships, romance, sports,” Gupta said. “You’ve got to relate that back to our lives so they will listen to you. Those are the kind of things that are important. We have to again humanize this to the kids’ level, to the youth level, and do it in a way that it actually makes a difference for them.”

West Virginia State Superintendent Clayton Burch talked about the need for schools to have resources to help children of parents addicted to drugs and how the pandemic has prevented school employees from noticing issues students are dealing with due to remote learning.

There has been a 49 percent increase in overdoses since the COVID-19 pandemic started, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said, with more people isolated at home.

“(Game Changer) is a systems approach to help children in West Virginia thrive and succeed,” West Virginia Drug Intervention Institute President Dr. Susan Bissett said. “We know we have a lot of children that are impacted by the substance abuse disorder either directly or indirectly. We know we are second in the nation for grandparents raising grandchildren. So we are really trying to find intentional ways to intervene early so our students are successful long term.”

West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Crouch said treatment opportunities are increasing across the state, but the best way to combat the drug epidemic is by preventing people from getting addicted in the first place.

“Whether you believe it or not, teenagers use illicit drugs,” said JoAnna Vance, whose father was killed in an overdose when she was 15 years old. “Teenagers experiment and they don’t know what are in those drugs. Naloxone is prevention and it saves lives, and that’s important for teenagers to know how to use today. I wish I would’ve had it when I was 15 because my dad might still be here.”

“We know that overdose is preventable,” Vance continued about the benefits of programs like Game Changer. “We know that recovery is possible, and we also know that dead people can’t recover.”

Multiple leaders expressed their hope that this program will be so successful in West Virginia that it can be applied in other states, as well, bringing groups of teachers within a school together to notice problems with students and teaching entire families how to cope with addiction.

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