With deaths from opioid overdoses on the rise, members of the North Tonawanda community are coming together to focus on the prevention of substance abuse in youths.
On Monday, the Community Health Alliance of North Tonawanda (CHANT) hosted a town hall meeting at Spruce Elementary School with four panelists who discussed their take on how to beat addiction before it starts.
One of those panelists was former heavyweight boxer Joe Mesi, who spoke of his own close call with destructive behavior following the subdural hematoma that brought his career to an end.
“After my career-ending injury, I suffered from depression for a couple of years,” he said. “And I made some poor decisions.”
Mesi said that young athletes dealing with injuries can be susceptible to similar problems to the ones he faced, particularly those who suffer head injuries. He said that it is possible that such injuries can cause behavioral changes in athletes that might make them more vulnerable to drug use.
In his case, Mesi said he found relief through various forms of therapy and he advocated strongly for the proper maintenance of mental health as a means of prevention. He urged parents to education themselves, to be on the lookout for signs of deteriorating mental health and to be aware of their children’s activities.
“I think you have to keep your eye open,” Mesi, the father of three children, said. “Talk to the friends, check the social media, be intrusive, be invasive and certainly continue the education.”
Another panelist was NT School District Superintendent Gregory Woytila, who said prevention starts at home and that it’s on parents to be proactive. Woytila, himself a father of two, said the key is to keep the line of communication open and show children that it’s ok to be honest with their parents.
But that doesn’t mean the school’s not doing its part to address the problem. Woytila said the district is working to enhance its health program and implement it at a younger age. The district has also been focused on mental health services and being aware of students who may be at risk of substance abuse.
“This is an interesting battle for schools,” he said. “I think we’re catching warning light kids, but no one is immune. We have to do a better job of watching for signs in everybody.”
Niagara County Legislator Rebecca Wydysh said local government is also working to address the rise in drug-related deaths. As the current chair of the county’s opioid task force, Wydysh said that getting those who are addicted the help they need is already being addressed, now she said it’s time “to get to the root of the problem.”
Wydysh says that right now, the county’s focus is on better tracking drug use to get a better understanding of it. She says they want to know the trends in addiction and how they differ from North Tonawanda to Niagara Falls to Lockport, and how trends in more urban areas differ from those in rural communities.
“We can then formulate policies around what’s happening where,” she said.
Wydysh also advocated for more education for doctors and pharmacists as well as drug take back programs that allow individuals to properly dispose of unused medications.
Erie County Commissioner of Health Gale Burstein reminded those in attendance that addiction is “a chronic disease of the brain.” She said those who suffer from it “are not bad people, they just had bad luck.”
Burstein supports the idea that non-addictive over-the-counter pain medication, like ibuprofen, could be used to treat chronic pain just as well as opioids, or better. She encouraged the parents in attendance to ask their family doctors to reconsider if they suggest prescribing an opioid to their child.
“Just be an advocate for your child,” she said. “Make sure they don’t get exposed.”