As the national opioid epidemic continues to rise throughout the nation, the Stephen F. Austin State University School of Social Work is partnering with Texas Health Institute in Austin to implement an initiative to crack down on the crisis, particularly in Harrison, Panola and Gregg counties.
“In the beginning, we were looking at the state of Texas,” explained Lenola Wyatt, a professor at SFA. “Of course, Texas Health is in Austin, so they do the whole State of Texas, so they brought to our attention that there were so many opioid-related deaths within the three counties.
“Because there’s a planning grant already in some of the other surrounding counties, these counties were left out, so they looked at that data that came from Robert Wood Johnson (Foundation),” she said. “They looked at the data that came from Poison Control. They looked at local data that was here, so they said let’s do Panola, Harrison and Gregg. Some of the surrounding counties already have this planning grant.”
“Nacogdoches, Angelina, Woodville, Jasper, they had a planning grant; so it was just right along this Louisiana line, sort of, that didn’t have that, but then they had the data to support that,” Wyatt said.
To help support the initiative, the Harrison County Commissioners Court recently approved to donate space to house the main office for the PHG (Panola, Harrison and Gregg) Community Initiative director at the Harrison County Annex building, located on the courthouse square.
The court also approved to provide a letter of support, championing the college’s quest to seek grant funding from the Health Resources & Services Administration Rural Communities Opioid Response Program (RCORP). RCORP is a multi-year initiative by the HRSA aimed at reducing the morbidity and mortality of substance use disorder, including opioid use disorder, in high-risk rural communities.
According to HRSA, the funding opportunity, RCORP implementation, will advance RCORP’s overall goal by strengthening and expanding substance use disorder and opioid use disorder prevention, treatment and recovery services to enhance rural residents’ ability to access treatment and move towards recovery.
“We’re going to be applying for an implementation grant, and that implementation grant will need to be submitted by January 2022,” Wyatt explained. “So we want to ask a letter of support from the county for that implementation grant also.”
Wyatt said they’ll be applying for the full million dollars.
“It’ll be $300,000 or a little bit over for each year for three years, so we’re hoping we can get that; but in case we don’t get that, we’re still going to need the space, we’re still going to move forward with this project with the support of the community and local foundations,” said Wyatt. “We would love to have the support of the county in this initiative in hoping that you all will see a difference, police will see a difference, that there will be a difference made in the lives of families dealing with methamphetamine, opioid and substance use disorder.”
Giving an overview of the work that’s been done in the past year, Wyatt noted that the SFA School of Social Work, in collaboration with Texas Health Institute, was granted a rural community opioid response planning grant in the fall of 2020. They started conducting their research in December 2020.
“Stephen F. Austin was charged with conducting all of the research,” said Wyatt. “We know that there are issues with methamphetamine and substance abuse, but we needed more data.”
Thus, from December 2020 to the spring of 2021, the school researched data for Panola, Harrison and Gregg Counties. What they discovered was people shying away from seeking help.
“What we did find was the negative stigma associated with people wanting to ask for help. Because we’re such a rural community and people don’t just come out and say ‘Well you know I got an issue,’ because that may be somebody you go to church with or somebody you work with,” Wyatt explained. “So there was this stigma that we found for individuals and families who were seeking treatment. So we’re looking to alleviate that barrier for people.”
“We also found that education and awareness were going to be needed for these particular populations, especially for senior adults who sometimes overmedicate on some of their pain medicines; young adults, people who may be having accidents or using the pain medicine and abusing the pain medicine; as well as some of the alcohol and drug abuse from youth and some of the college students,” she added.
Through their research efforts, the college was able to connect with such populations. The school also collected data from the Texas Poison Control to help support their research.
According to data from Texas Poison Control, between January 2020 and June 2020, there was 151 opioid-related poison center calls — 75 percent in Gregg County, 16 percent in Harrison and 9 percent in Panola County.
Additionally, according to 2020 county health rankings, there were 44 drug overdoses in the three-county area. That included 27 deaths in Gregg County, which was 67 percent; and 17 deaths in Harrison County, which was 39 percent. Panola County was suppressed due to low numbers.
“So these are some of the things we have found during this last year of research,” said Wyatt. “So what we are thinking there’s a lot of great agencies that are doing good work out there, but what we found were the gaps of places that we could fit in so that we could do more to help to alleviate some of the drug overdose and some of the misuse of drug and alcohol abuse. So what we have been doing is just working and doing community interviews for the past year. We came up with a strategic plan and what we’re wanting to do is to have an office-base, here in Harrison County, because it’s sort of in the middle of Panola County and also the rural area of Gregg County.”
She said the main office will act as the main base, serving as the “octopus,” providing support services to the three counties.
“We have a strategic plan that we are going to be working with for the next five years on this particular project, so we’re asking for some office space from the county if we could so we can house the project director,” she said. “In this particular office there won’t be any services that will be provided. It will sort of be the octopus where we can direct people to where they’re needing to be.”
Wyatt noted that they’ve reached out to 80 different organizations throughout the three counties to collaborate efforts. Agencies and organizations include the Twelve Way Foundation in Marshall, the juvenile and adult probation office, Heather’s House in Gregg County, East Texas Council of Governments special health resources, several churches, Marshall Housing Authority, Area Agency on Aging, Tri-County Community Action, Wiley College and East Texas Baptist University.
“We have to show that we have sustainability and that sustainability will be here with these folks, because they’re committed,” she said. “So we’re pretty positive about it.”