New law boosts support to help communities tackle opioid abuse

New law boosts support to help communities tackle opioid abuse

(District of Columbia) Federal legislation signed last week to address the national opioid epidemic will connect support systems in an effort to expand access to resources in underserved communities–something experts say will likely benefit children throughout the U.S.

The new law, known as the SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act, aims to address the national opioid crisis by advancing treatment and recovery initiatives, improving prevention efforts and combating the development and spread of synthetic drugs like fentanyl.

It also authorizes the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services to distribute grants to help link educational agencies with mental health systems to increase student access to support services that can prevent and mitigate trauma that children experience.

“There’s a lot of potential in this bill to align the mental health, substance abuse, healthcare, child welfare, educational, and even law enforcement and justice systems, to significantly help families affected by opioid misuse.” said Elizabeth Coté, MD, MPA, chief health officer for the National Institute for Children’s Health Quality. “It’s now up to communities and states to thoughtfully implement this bill so that, at the end of the day, at-risk children are not alone in their early years fending for themselves, and so that their natural advocates—their teachers, their pediatricians and most importantly their parents—don’t face the problem alone.”

Aligning mental, physical and early education systems in a way that includes the provision of mental health care, substance abuse treatment, school supports, and even employment supports for parents and guardians can keep families together and minimize children’s exposure to trauma in their earliest years, she explained.

Of the approximately 72,000 drug overdose deaths in 2017 in the U.S., almost 70 percent  were due to opioids, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. And nationwide, 8.7 million children have a parent who suffers from a substance abuse disorder, data from the American Academy of Pediatrics show.

Children dealing with traumatic experiences–like a parent struggling with drug addiction–can face social, emotional, physical, and mental health challenges that last into adulthood. Research shows that if left unaddressed, early childhood adversity can lead to poor academic outcomes, an increased likelihood of alcohol and drug abuse, and a higher risk of developing health conditions including obesity and heart disease.

The bill signed by the president last week calls for, among other things, improved and expanded access to treatment and recovery services; the establishment of comprehensive opioid recovery centers; improved data to identify and help at-risk patients and families; increased access to federal resources for local communities; and the provision of grants for local organizations and agencies to combat the spread of fentanyl–a synthetic opioid 50 to100 times more potent than morphine, according to the Institute on Drug Abuse.

Coté noted that to best implement the bill, communities will need to be thoughtful about how to use the resources to align the many systems already functioning, and bring them together to improve access to services in areas that have long been underserved.

When parents can’t access the best treatment for opioid addiction in their community–something especially common in rural areas–they’re set up for failure, and that puts their child at further risk for neglect or abuse, Coté said.

 One section of the bill which links school-based systems and trauma-informed support health services is a good example of the sort of collaborative efforts necessary to address certain aspects of the opioid epidemic, she explained. It provides a way for children and their families, many of whom are uninsured or live in a place where they’d have to wait months to see a professional, to access mental health services.

That sort of expansion to access and breaking down of barriers between various state and local agencies can help quickly address the risk factors linked to many negative long-term outcomes, including opioid misuse, according to Coté.

“Drug overdose deaths are now the leading cause of accidental deaths among Americans, with the largest increases in rural areas,” Coté said. “So now we’re talking about–and I don’t want to sound too dramatic–but essentially a generation of opioid orphans.

“While this all sounds so dire, there’s also cause for hope,” she continued. “We know we can treat opioid addiction, and that’s why this bill is such a beacon of light in the current climate–a bipartisan effort to address an epidemic of suffering with significant resources should call us all to action.”

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