Statewide efforts to thwart the opioid epidemic that is ravaging Georgia communities got a boost recently at three conferences that brought together public and private sector leaders to learn more about the problem and how to address it.

The conferences, coordinated by the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government for the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, are just one of many ways UGA is helping to address critical challenges facing the state.

Before the third conference, in Cartersville, had ended, Steve Spivey, who chairs a citizen council that advises the DBHDD, was lining up speakers for training sessions he wants to see organized throughout the state.

“I attended the conference to see how we could battle this wildfire of opioids that is sweeping across the country and killing our people,” Spivey said. “Right now, there are no fire lines, and I wanted to see where we could set a fire line and stop it.”

Hundreds of counselors, educators, health care providers and social workers attended conferences in Cartersville, Macon and Stone Mountain to better understand addiction from a pharmacological and neurological perspective and learn about medication-assisted treatment. The sessions brought together the people who, in their jobs, are most likely to come in contact with individuals who struggle with opioid misuse.

“The institute played a key role in organizing a way for front-line service providers to learn more about this deadly epidemic and exchange ideas and wisdom,” said Laura Meadows, director of the Carl Vinson Institute of Government. “It’s the kind of outreach that’s integral to the institute’s mission of applying UGA’s resources to address a critical issue.”

Opioids include painkillers like morphine, hydrocodone and oxycodone, all legal by prescription. Illegal drugs like heroin also are part of the opioid family.

Overdoses on these addictive drugs claimed the lives of 42,00 Americans in 2016, including 929 Georgians.

Overdoses on these addictive drugs claimed the lives of 42,000 Americans in 2016, including 929 Georgians. DBHDD, charged with developing an opioid prevention, treatment and recovery strategy, engaged the Institute of Government to help implement the training portion of the plan.

The institute worked with the Office of Addictive Diseases at DBHDD to organize the training conferences for health professionals and treatment providers, securing expert speakers from the Opioid Treatment Providers of Georgia organization and the UGA College of Pharmacy.

Joelyn Alfred, conference chair for OTPG, said educating community leaders like Spivey is a critical first step in helping Georgia succeed in its response to the opioid epidemic.

“Once you understand the scope of this crisis, then you can start to do something about it,” Alfred said.

All three conferences were designed to provide information about referrals for treatment and recovery services to community public health officials, treatment and recovery professionals, state agency staff, social workers, accountability court personnel, probation officers and educators, like Jo Ellen Hancock, a parent mentor in Cherokee County schools.

“The information I learned at this conference is critical to pretty much everything I do,” Hancock said. “I do family engagement, and the opioid crisis is part of it. It’s all about prevention and early intervention. The earlier we can get that across, the better.”

DBHDD received an $11.8 million federal grant to support prevention, treatment and recovery and wants to move quickly to provide training and expand services and community education across Georgia, said DBHDD Commissioner Judy Fitzgerald.

“Our system was not fully equipped to handle the volume and scope of this emerging crisis,” Fitzgerald said. “The grant has been a really important opportunity to put some new services and expanded services into place immediately.”

The state also is providing support to expand medication-assisted treatment programs that use medications such as methadone, buprenorphine and Vivitrol, as part of a comprehensive treatment plan coupled with counseling and recovery support. DBHDD has a 24-hour hotline for people who need help: 844-326-5400. Schools are getting prevention education toolkits, and DBHDD supplies first responders with naloxone, a drug that reduces overdose deaths by counteracting the effects of opioids.

Merrill Norton, a UGA pharmacy professor and certified addiction counselor, led sessions at the training conferences on how MAT drugs work and how other drugs can interact with opioids. He emphasized that addiction is a disease that can be treated.

Naloxone, an opioid overdose reversal drug, is an important tool for paramedics, police and other first responders, Norton said, because “you can’t treat people if they’re dead.”

Danny Yearwood, chaplain and inmate advocate with the Stephens County Sheriff’s Office, understands exactly what Norton means. In recovery himself since 2005, Yearwood favors abstinence-based treatment but said he gained valuable knowledge from Norton and other presenters. “I always find nuggets in training conferences that I can apply to my community,” he said.

Beverly Johnson, who manages the Institute of Government’s partnership with DBHDD, said UGA is a committed partner in Georgia’s campaign to help people get treatment that leads to recovery.

“This shows our determination to reach out and build a healthier, more productive state,” Johnson said.