City Connects coordinators respond to the opioid crisis

The opioid crisis has devastated the country, and here at City Connects we’re seeing the crisis play out in schools.

There were 66,817 drug overdose deaths in the United States from June 2016 to June 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of these deaths, 2,054 occurred in Massachusetts.

As the Boston Globe reported last year, “The sprawling drug crisis, which public health officials have described as the worst in American history, has touched nearly every part of society. But the burden has perhaps fallen hardest on children, creating a new generation of foster youth and placing extraordinary strain on the child welfare system.”

In Salem, where City Connects is in all nine of the cities public elementary schools, “we’ve seen at least three parent deaths this school year as a result of the opioid crisis in just our PreK-8 schools,” Ellen Wingard, Salem’s City Connects Program Manager, reports.

To handle sudden crises, City Connects coordinators counsel students and help teachers who need guidance. Coordinators and school officials also help families mobilize both their financial resources and their personal resilience so that they can manage funeral arrangements and costs — and begin the work of healing.

On a daily basis, coordinators connect families to treatment and other community resources so that they can cope with the consequences of substance abuse. To do this work successfully, the coordinators themselves receive professional development on how to understand, recognize, and respond to opioid use. In some districts, our coordinators have been invited to join the school nurse for a training on Medication Assisted Opiate Treatment.

To further help students, coordinators focus on prevention by, in part, building strong relationships with students early on. The American Academy of Pediatrics notes:

“Relationships with teachers and counselors are among the most important and formative ones for many students, especially middle school students. Students who are poorly bonded to school are also less likely to recognize that substance use may reduce the likelihood of them achieving their future goals.”

We aren’t alone in this work. As Micah Ali writes in the American School Board Journal, while opioid addiction is often seen as a rural problem, “urban schools and school districts are developing multifaceted approaches to effectively teach and work with students and families.”

Ali says these efforts include education and prevention in early elementary school; professional development programs on opioids for teachers and staff ; increased school-based counseling, mental health, and medical services; and partnerships with outside agencies.   

“The opioid crisis is a heartbreaking fact of life for so many school-children,” Mary Walsh, the executive director of City Connects says. “Our hope is that because City Connects coordinators build supportive relationships with children and families early on, they can contribute to preventing substance abuse crises before they occur.

“And because City Connects works closely with partner community agencies and tracks students’ needs, we know we can also help communities better understand the larger picture of how substance abuse services are accessed and used.”

It’s this ability to provide immediate help, relevant data, and long term prevention that makes City Connects’ school-based intervention one way to help schools address the needs of children and families who have been impacted by the opioid epidemic.

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