FARGO — From 2008 to 2015, opioid prescriptions increased 59.7% in North Dakota, and enough opioids were prescribed in South Dakota in 2017 to medicate every adult in the state for 15 days, according to Strengthening the Heartland, a joint project on opioid addiction from South Dakota State University Extension and North Dakota State University Extension.
Against that backdrop, Strengthening the Heartland is trying to build awareness of opioid misuse in rural communities with training programs for adults and teens, print and online resources, webinars and more.
Extension officials from the two universities worked together to develop Strengthening the Heartland with grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Rural communities have been hit particularly hard in the opioid epidemic, and Meagan Scott, assistant professor and 4-H youth development specialist in the North Dakota State University Extension Center for 4-H Youth Development, says the difficult conditions in farming and in rural areas are considered risk factors for opioid prescription misuse. Combine that with a scarcity of mental health resources — over 90% of counties in both states are classified as mental health professional shortage areas — and the conditions are right for a problem.
“We’re not really an urban state, so there’s not a treatment center in every town,” Scott says.
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Strengthening the Heartland offers print materials, like fact sheets and a treatment resource map. The project website, https://www.sdstate.edu/strengthening-heartland, features links to state-specific resources and six recorded webinars.
Strengthening the Heartland also has people throughout both states trained to present in-person programs on opioids. The Opioid Public Health Crisis is a one-hour program for adults, featuring information about opioid misuse, risk factors and suggested prevention methods. The teen program, “This is (Not) About Drugs,” targets youth in grades 6-12 about the risks of misusing prescription opioids and alternatives to substances when dealing with stress. Scott calls the hourlong program “eye-opening.”
“Youth don’t realize what a big deal it is and how addicting it is,” she says.
People trained to put on the presentations include school counselors, counseling and university professionals, college students and others with an interest in the issue. More presenters are needed; requirements to become a trainer include completing online trainings and a remote training with Kourtnaye Sturgeon of Overdose Lifeline Inc. Trainers earn $100 per presentation.