Anaconda students with Steve Daines in Washington, D.C.

Anaconda high school students Seamus Hoolahan, Henry Phillip and Kai Bauer discuss with U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., last week in Washington, D.C., how youth leadership is imperative in how communities combat substance abuse disorders.

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — Butte-Silver Bow is not alone as a community concerned about substance abuse. All across the country, communities are talking about how substance abuse — the abuse of meth, opioids, alcohol, marijuana, tobacco and other legal and illegal substances — is ruining families and lives and devastating communal frameworks.

This concern was on full display at the recent 28th annual Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA) National Leadership Forum in Washington, D.C., where about 3,000 community representatives learned more about substance abuse in America and what it’s doing to us and our communities. The event was held in conjunction with the 14th annual Prevention Day, sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Substance abuse was recently ranked as the No. 1 health issue in Butte-Silver Bow, just ahead of mental illness. In our community, substance abuse disorder and behavioral health issues are often intertwined as co-occurring maladies. Community health assessments across the state of Montana show substance abuse disorders and mental health issues to be the ranking health issues of their communities.

Substance abuse is a big nasty deal in Butte-Silver Bow, it’s a big nasty deal in Montana, and it’s a big nasty deal across the country.

I was invited to the CADCA/SAMHSA conference by Butte Cares, the substance abuse prevention coalition in Butte-Silver Bow. Attending with me were Butte-Silver Bow Chief Executive Dave Palmer, who recently established a local work group focused on substance abuse, County Commissioner Cindi Shaw, and Linda Lowney and Laura Cross of Butte Cares. Lowney now facilitates the local substance abuse work group.

The CADCA/SAMHSA conference included Capitol Hill Day, and the Montana delegation attending the conference, accompanied by youths from throughout the state, was able to meet with all of the state’s delegates — U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., and U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont. A high school senior from Frenchtown stood at one of these meetings and relayed how her father had died by suicide after years of alcohol abuse. Another girl, a high school freshman, also from Frenchtown, stood and relayed how her mother’s alcoholism had negatively impacted her family. The girl said her mother is now in recovery.

The youth delegation also included Seamus Hoolahan, Henry Phillip and Kai Bauer from Anaconda. They all spoke about how they’re attempting to be role models for younger youths in their community, and how youth leadership is imperative in community prevention efforts.

Butte Cares in recent years has brought youths to Washington for this conference, but Lowney and Cross both said this year they wanted local government officials on the trip, as Butte Cares looks to sustain its operations beyond grant funding — policy-makers and public health officials can be particularly effective long-term partners in community prevention and treatment efforts.

A variety of community prevention and treatment strategies were presented at the conference — and like at any conference, a variety of organization representatives manned booths displaying products and wares, booths at this particular conference displaying tools and strategies focused on prevention and treatment. Represented were the Hazeldon Betty Ford Foundation and the Serenity Acres Treatment Center. Another booth was manned by representatives from Enovative Technologies, which manufactures neuro-stimulator devices that manage pain (a clear pain-management alternative to opiates). Medical Inflatable Exhibits Inc. had a large inflatable brain on display, portraying how substance abuse disorders can destroy this most important organ.

My main take-aways from the conference? In Butte-Silver Bow, like in every other community — it will take a village over the coming years to appropriately address substance abuse disorders. Physicians, law enforcement, pharmacists, firefighters, parents, college students — all will need to be deployed to effectively combat substance abuse. We who attended knew going in to the conference the value of deploying youths, but we need to leverage youths now more than ever — we need to prompt parents to relay how the prevention strategies we are deploying in Butte are changing the lives of children. We need to prompt youths to relay how these prevention strategies are changing their schools.

I’m proud of Butte and the actions we’ve taken through the Community Action Team, School District No. 1 and organizations like Butte Cares to undertake prevention efforts over the past four years. We have had no recent episodes of youths dying by suicide — knock on wood.

But we continue to have adults die by suicide, an act that is often accompanied by substance abuse. And the words of Mike Thatcher continue to haunt me. Thatcher, the chief executive officer of Community, Counseling and Correctional Services in Butte, said at a recent meeting of the local substance abuse work group that Butte individuals call him every week, crying out for help because one of their family members is in danger of dying due to substance use disorder.

Again, substance abuse is the No. 1 health issue in Butte-Silver Bow. The prevention and treatment strategies we learned about in Washington, D.C., will be invaluable as we a community work together to tackle this problem.

Karen Sullivan is Butte-Silver Bow Health Officer and Director of the Health Department. Her column, The Public's Health, appears weekly on The Montana Standard's health page.

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