Addressing the rural Utah opioid crisis and stigma through local partnerships and compassion

By Kayla Norman, Corporate Social Responsibility
August 01, 2019
Sandra Sulzer USU coordinated event  and Kayla Norman CSR

Main photo: Kayla Norman (pictured right) with Sandra Sulzer, assistant professor of health at USU

Recently, Utah State University (USU) Extension hosted the Tribal and Rural Opioid Initiative Summit in Price, Utah. According to its website, USU Extension provides research-based programs and resources with the goal of improving the lives of individuals, families and communities throughout Utah.

I had the opportunity to join nearly 300 attendees for this community-focused conference to build partnerships, address the stigma associated with substance abuse, and discuss solutions to the opioid epidemic.

Sandra Sulzer, assistant professor of health at USU and conference coordinator, opened the summit with some staggering statistics. From 2000 to 2015, for example, Utah experienced a nearly 400 percent increase in deaths from the misuse and abuse of prescription drugs. In Carbon County, where the summit was hosted, 94 percent of overdose deaths were attributed to prescription drugs. In a response to this epidemic, USU Extension brought together organizations from around the state to find ways to better prevent substance and support those with a substance abuse disorder through recovery.  

Stigma was the word heard throughout the conference with leaders in the field reminding attendees that to address the substance abuse epidemic, we must talk about it, humanize it and remember that this is a disease to be treated with compassion.

USU Extension’s Randy Williams shared about the university’s Informing the National Narrative: Stories of Utah’s Opioid Crisis program, which empowers people with a substance abuse disorder and those in recovery to share their stories to bring the impact beyond data, reminding us all this is a human issue. “It is time we talk about the opioid epidemic as a community issue,” said Williams, “rather than a family secret.”

VaRonica Little, from the Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, discussed the negative impact stigma often has for those seeking treatment, specially around evidence-based treatment options like syringe exchange programs and medication assisted treatment. Little reminded us that if we look at addiction as a disease, we also must explore treatment options as we would with diseases.

VaRonica Little Utah Dept of Human Services

VaRonica Little, Program Director, Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health discusses the negative impact of stigma

Throughout the conference, attendees were asked to commit to a single takeaway, using the information learned in this conference. Suggestions included reaching out to connect to someone with a substance abuse disorder or going through personal medicine cabinets to toss out any prescriptions not currently in use. Other ideas included share the Use Only as Directed webpage on social media to remind others, and even donating to an organization on the ground doing prevention and treatment work.

Attendees post conference commitments_USU Opioid Summit 2019

Activity walls at the Rural Opioid Summit encouraged attendees to engage with one another and share ideas

We’re proud to work alongside community partners like Utah State University Extension, Utah Support Advocates for Recovery Awareness (USARA), and others to address the opioid and substance abuse epidemic.

Regence is committed to decreasing the misuse of opioids while supporting appropriate use for people who can benefit from opioid treatment. Since 2015, our health plans have reduced opioid prescriptions by 39 percent across our four-state region (Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah). To learn more about Regence’s work to address the epidemic in our communities, please review our opioid response and check back on the blog for updates about our work.