The Washtenaw Health Initiative Opioid Project hosted the Washtenaw County Opioid Summit on Tuesday, where various state and local stakeholders came together for the discussion focused on the county’s high, but declining, rate of opioid overdoses and the link between trauma and addiction. Participants learned about opioid use in the county, heard testimonials and attended breakout sessions relating to primary prevention, pain management, harm reduction, treatment and recovery.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., shared a few words on her personal relationship to opioid addiction, discussing how her father suffered from prescription drug addiction, and her younger sister died from a drug overdose. Dingell stressed opioid addiction affects many people and said it is necessary to reduce the stigma associated with the illness.

“This is really real to me. It’s not easy for me to talk about. I talk about it more than I did, because you look at me and think I’ve got this great life,” Dingell said. “And I am lucky, I’ve got a lot of friends, I’ve got a lot of family, they keep me going. But I do talk about it, because it happens in every family, it happens in every community, every neighborhood, and you cannot imagine the desperation.”

Dingell’s late husband, former U.S. Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., also used opioids to treat his pain from cancer. Dingell said it’s important not to stigmatize people with real pain and emphasized the need for alternative pain medication.

“We have to develop alternative pain pills, so that people get pain relief without becoming addicted, and we need to not stigmatize those who have real pain, or not give them the pills that they need, while at the same time, keeping our kids, keeping our neighbors, our families, from ever starting them,” Dingell said.

According to keynote speaker Adreanne Waller, an epidemiologist and author of the Washtenaw County Opioid Report, the first five months of 2019 have shown a decrease in opioid prescription and emergency overdose visits. 

Waller detailed a number of factors that contributed to the epidemic, including untreated mental health, corporate greed, unemployment and disabilities.

“There’s a number of — and I keep adding to this list — big issues that have become much more crystal clear over the years within this epidemic,” Waller said. “The historic, unjust responses to the crack and cocaine epidemic and how that injured generations of families. We’ve learned so much about other substance abuse disorders… the incredible, high profit margins of marketing addictive substances, untreated mental health, mental illness affects changes in healthcare delivery, deepen social ties, employment and disability challenges, as well as linked with lacking economic opportunity. This list gets longer and longer.”

Waller also said 2,100 of 300,000 emergency department visits from January 2011 to May 2019 in Washtenaw County were related to opioid poisoning, and those with Medicaid seem to exhibit higher rates of visits to the ER concerning repeat opioid overdoses.

Waller, along with others at the summit, said she believes treating childhood trauma may be key to preventing opioid addiction.

“I really feel that understanding more about the link between trauma and opiate overdoses might enable us to identify trauma as almost the preventative test — mammography, if you will — that will prevent ultimately an opiate overdose,” Waller said. “It helps us to see things much earlier than we would otherwise. And if that pain, that that person has, is covered up with a chemical euphoria, like opioids, it can delay treatment until the cancer has spread.”

Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, is the terminology for measuring childhood trauma. According to the World Health Organization, ACEs is the most important health discovery of the century. 

Zaire Totty, project coordinator for the System for Opioid Overdose Surveillance at the University of Michigan Injury Prevention Center, said this event is a good opportunity to bring together people from different fields.

“I think it’s a good opportunity for a lot of the different stakeholders to get together as well, especially because this is an epidemic that comes from so many different parts of public health,” Totty said. “With prescribers and recreational use, I really think it’s a good time to get individuals from different disciplines that are working on this topic.”

Amy Rucker, project coordinator for the University of Michigan’s Injury Prevention Center, acknowledged the importance of bringing together the community to discuss the issue.

“I think it’s really important to bring different stakeholders and providers from across Washtenaw County and across the state … to an event to talk about something so important,” Rucker said. “Yet even within organizations within the University of Michigan, we have a lot of different projects and and a lot of different centers and institutes working on the opioid epidemic … So just bringing everyone together in one space, we get to learn what everyone’s doing. We can collaborate, make meaningful connections.”

Sarah Khan, a student studying social work at Eastern Michigan University, emphasized the importance of the opioid crisis in relation to her career path.

“As somebody who’s majoring in social work, I think it’s really important to know different things that affect your community,” Khan said. “And I wanted to be better educated people so that I can know resources and help people.”

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