Strengthening the Heartland against opioids

Through the “Strengthening the Heartland Program in South Dakota,” Nicole Schwing gives an awareness presentation on the misuse of opioids to an adult class.

Strengthening the Heartland (STH) is a new program and is looking to do just that here in rural South Dakota. Across America today opioid awareness is at an all time high.

Hardest hit in the opioid abuse epidemic are the rural areas — without resources and education in the communities to combat the misuses.

“The intention is not to shame people,” Dr. Amber Letcher, South Dakota State University associate professor and 4-H youth development specialist said. “Education is the focus.”

Strengthening the Heartland is the collaboration of both North and South Dakota State University’s Extension programs. The program rolled out last fall with just 10 people across each state trained to respond and give information and education presentations in their regions. The areas covered are designed for the smaller communities.

Both metropolises in South Dakota, Rapid City and Sioux Falls, are not in the coverage area by STH.

The goal in the upcoming year, for SDSU, through federal grants, is to increase the number of trained facilitators to 20 people in each state.

The ultimate goal is to be able to respond when any community asks for a presentation, said Letcher. Middle and high schools, along with community centers, are places the program is looking to present its message.

The two grants, totaling $800,000, making the conversation possible come from National institute of Food and Agriculture and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The NIFA contributed $300,000 and SAMHSA “piggy-backed” $500,000 to the program, according to Letcher.

“We don’t have the rates (of addiction) of Ohio or West Virginia,” Letcher said. “However, we don’t have good data because the CDC collects data from small communities, but they don’t record it.”

Letcher said the information collected by the Center for Disease Control does not record the numbers that are reported in the smaller communities. They are not recorded because in smaller communities it would be easier to identify people who have contributed their information anonymously.

“Our goal is prevention and to keep rates down,” Letcher said.

There is a general stigma and fear related to Opioids and some participants might have trepidations about sharing experiences, but Letcher assures it is not the case.

According to the STH website, there are two types of one-hour programs facilitated. The adult program presents opioid misuse factors and prevention. The teen and young adult program is called “This is (Not) About Drugs.” While prevention and awareness is the goal of both, the young adult program tries to educate folks on dealing with stress through alternatives to taking drugs.

One program facilitator, James Spratt, a mental health counselor in Huron, prefers working with the young adults. He feels providing education early allows them to make better decisions in their futures.

“Teens particular are at a higher risk to addiction,” Spratt said.

There is hope.

After looking over the surveys handed back from young adults, “The students seem to be learning. They are being educated,” Spratt said.

Spratt knows the students are aware of the issues facing communities today and to the youths, it is not a new subject.

“This is why we get into trouble, assuming they don’t know,” Spratt said about the teens.

The biggest item in both South and North Dakota for people to know is that the education sessions are free, and being free is the biggest draw say the people creating the help.

“It is so powerful to meet new people and build connections that help the community,” Letcher said.

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