VALPARAISO — The opioid epidemic isn't going away any time soon, so it will be up to the young people of today, including college students, to help stop it.
"It's your generation's problem to solve," Karen Allen told a group of more than 100 students last week at Valparaiso University, where she is dean of the College of Nursing and Health Professions.
"It's not going to be solved in a week or a month or a year. You're going to have to come up with a solution and figure it out."
The university held the opioid forum Wednesday to get the health care professionals of tomorrow thinking today about what effect they might have on stemming addiction.
"No matter what discipline you come from, you will be affected by this," said Carrie Lawrence, a researcher with the Indiana University School of Public Health.
She noted that in 2017 drugs killed more than 1,700 Hoosiers, an all-time high. A couple of the speakers paraphrased Benjamin Franklin's famous quote: "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."
But Lawrence said schools aren't always the best place to intervene in the lives of people struggling with addiction; the doctor's office could be a better opportunity: "making it part of the screening in pediatric and adult care."
She said different types of treatment work for different people. Some might benefit from medications such as buprenorphine (Suboxone), naltrexone (Vivitrol) and methadone. For others, Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous could be effective; residential treatment is another alternative.
"Opioid addiction is like no other addiction that's out there," said Todd Willis, a drug counselor for Porter-Starke Services. "Not only will it kill you; it's very hard to break free of this."
But there's a shortage of professionals trained to treat it, noted Cara Jones, of HealthLinc, a community health center based in Valparaiso, with other locations including East Chicago and Michigan City.
So her organization is educating family providers on how to prescribe drugs to treat opioid addiction. In the past three months, 12 HealthLinc providers have undergone training in so-called medication-assisted therapy, she said.
"Primary care providers played a role in prescribing these drugs," she said of the prescription painkillers that account for an estimated 40 percent of opioid deaths. Now those professionals can be part of the solution.
"Please keep in mind the potential you have to save the world for somebody," said Herb Stepherson, an outreach coordinator and recovery coach for True Interventions in Merrillville and USA Addiction in Highland.
Stepherson said that when he was addicted to opioids, health care providers could have "called me on my (expletive) and said you're a dope fiend and get treatment" — rather than prescribing him more narcotics.
But more so, he said, these medical professionals need to recognize the opportunity they have: that when a person wants to get help for their addiction, they want it now.
"Capitalize on that window when it's open," he said. "When I want to get clean, I'm desperate." He said the treatment community calls that the "gift of desperation."
"Education yourselves and know the signs and symptoms," he said.