Regional experts discuss opioid overdose crisis, provide resources for Johnson Countians seeking help

Bob Twillman
Bob Twillman, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at The University of Kansas Medical Center

As America faces an opioid addiction and overdose crisis, regional experts on substance use disorders gave tips for Johnson Countians on how to find resources for opioid users in need of help.

Bob Twillman, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at KU Medical Center, and Kimberly Nelson, regional administrator for Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, gave a presentation Tuesday at Asbury United Methodist Church on opioid addiction as well as ways each community can address the crisis.

Twillman, who treats people with pain and advocates for policy and education on pain management, addiction and treatment related to opioid use, said the opioid crisis is a “complex problem” with no easy solutions.

“It involves pain management; it involves addiction; it involves other mental health diagnoses,” Twillman said. “Until we take care of all of those problems, we’re not going to solve the opioid crisis.”

About 68 percent of the more than 70,000 drug overdose deaths in 2017 involved an opioid, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The potent drug fentanyl, often mixed into heroin, is a primary cause of overdose and death.

Prescription drug monitoring programs may help track drug use, Twillman said, but it doesn’t account for the fact that most people who died of opioid overdose did not have an active prescription for the drug that killed them. Furthermore, mental health disorders complicate treatment options, especially when a person deals with chronic pain.

‘Opioid use disorder is disease, not a moral failing’

Kimberly Nelson
Kimberly Nelson, regional administrator for Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

As opioid-related deaths continue to climb each year, Nelson said she urges communities to find a way to address the stigma surrounding addiction. Otherwise, they may deny or hide their addiction and avoid getting treatment.

“Understand that opioid use disorder is a disease; it’s not a moral failing,” Nelson said. “Know that there is help available right here in our community.

“If we have stigma about, ‘Hey, you’re a drug addict and that makes you a bad person,’ then that person’s not going to help. They don’t even want to admit that they have a problem. We can say, ‘Hey, you’re a sick person who has an illness, like someone who has diabetes, we want to help you get help.’”

Even though Kansas has some of the lowest drug overdose rates, opioid-related overdose and death still happens “fairly frequently,” Twillman said. In 2016, 146 people in Kansas died from an opioid-related overdose­­ — a rate of 5.1 deaths per 100,000 persons — compared to the national rate of 13.3 deaths per 100,000.

“The thing is, we have to understand that with all of these problems, we have to figure out how to address each of them without making the other problems worse,” he said. “One way to address addiction is to get rid of all the opioids, but then that leaves people with pain without effective treatment.”

Twillman hopes to encourage medical professionals to utilize Comprehensive Integrative Pain Management, which calls for finding unique solutions for each individual and prescribing a combination of treatments to manage their pain.

The goal of pain management should be to help each person be able to function despite their pain, to continue living as full a life as possible and to find other ways to alleviate pain (such as acupuncture or yoga) with a reduced use of and dependence on opioids, Twillman said.

As a person in recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder and substance use disorder, Nelson wants to leave people with messages of hope to overcome addiction.

“People recover from addiction,” Nelson said. “They lead productive lives; it happens all over the place. We could be part of that.”

Here are a few resources in Kansas for assistance with opioid use and addiction: