Rural communities present unique challenges in fighting the opioid epidemic

Utah State University Extension is hosting a Rural Opioid Health and Wellness Summit in Price on July 18th and 19th, but the organizer of the event said the issues being discussed at this summit are things every Utah community would benefit from.

“A few years ago, in Emery County, we got together with 4-H and asked the large group of community members who knew someone who died of a drug overdose, and everyone raised their hand,” said Dr. Sandy Sulzer, Assistant Profession of Health and Wellness in the Department of Kinesiology & Health Science and Cooperative Extension at USU. “Everyone was refusing to talk about it. The Sherriff was saying it wasn’t a problem. Everyone was suffering silently and the whole community was hurting.”

Sulzer launched the Tribal and Rural Opioid Initiative (TROI) in 2018 after receiving grant funding, with the goal to provide resources among rural Utahns. She said they take a community-driven approach. More than half the planning committee are members of the community including law enforcement, people in active recovery, and neighbors.

“It’s everyday people who have been touched by this in their lives.”

The program was never intended to be a “bunch of experts” coming together, Sulzer explained, but to empower a community to make changes together. The summit this month will include a range of speakers. Recovery professionals, counselors, local law enforcement, law students helping expunge records, and more will attend.

“There will be a variety of tracks that people can participate in,” Sulzer said. Summit tracks include Community and Loved Ones, Multiple Recovery Pathways, First Responders and Suicide Prevention, Medical Providers and Military.

Rural communities all over the state, including Cache County, suffer from increased opioid addiction.

“There just isn’t treatment in rural communities. There isn’t a place to detox; and, if people can’t detox, they usually end up in jail. You can’t get around a rural community without a car, but those with a conviction might not be able to drive. And no matter where you live, it’s hard to get a job with a conviction on your record, and it’s really hard to get your life back on track if you can’t work,” Sulzer explained.

Despite the disadvantages of fighting an opioid drug war in rural areas, Sulzer is optimistic about the power a community has in making a difference. “If we all come together in these issues, we can really do a lot. If one person stands up and does something, especially in a small town, everyone sees it.”

The TROI offers more than community events. Another aspect has been collecting stories of Utah’s opioid crisis. Sulzer said they have people who are in recovery, or actively addicted, share their stories so anyone can read or listen to them.

“We’re really trying to find different ways to get information out there. If we share stories, it will reduce the stigma,” she said.

When Sulzer moved to USU as a faculty member, she was really struck by how severe the state’s problem of opioid use was.

“Carbon County has almost 2.5 times the national average of opioid mortality rates. Utah is so healthy in so many ways, but my call as a faculty member was to serve whatever the people in this state need the most,” she said.

Two and a half years ago there was a dinner held at USU to talk about the opioid issue.

“The deans were there, and they said they wanted all the great minds in the room to come together and start connecting the dots between our expertise to make a plan. For me, it’s about looking at the data of what’s going on. Hearing phone calls, especially from rural communities saying, ‘I don’t want to go to another funeral.’ It’s heartbreaking and it ripples throughout the community,” she said.

A youth track featuring keynote speakers Ryan Stream and Justin Hughes, from the Young People in Recovery Salt Lake Chapter, is scheduled from 3:15 to 8 p.m. Thursday. Youth ages 14-18 and chaperones or parents are welcome to attend. Activities such as watermelon eating contests, bubble balls, S’mores, and Aggie Ice Cream, sponsored by USU Eastern, will be held. Thursday will conclude with a community dinner and music.

For free registration, please visit https://extension.usu.edu/RuralOpioidSummit/. Rural community members are invited to apply for travel and lodging scholarships at http://bit.ly/ruralopioidsummit.

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