Park City stands together to support those battling drug abuse and mental health issues |

Park City stands together to support those battling drug abuse and mental health issues

Utah is fourth in the nation for opioid deaths

Graphic created by Kira Hoffelmeyer.

A dangerous scourge that has arisen nationally is now impacting our community. Seemingly unnoticed, locally, until the deaths of two 13-year-old Park City boys last year, the cause, was drug overdose. Teens had ordered a drug called Pink (U-47700) online, directly from China, and the results were catastrophic. Said to be eight times stronger than morphine, it’s merely one more substance in the opioid pandemic that is sweeping the nation. In 2016 alone, it’s estimated that there were over 59,000 drug deaths nationwide, nearly half from prescription medications.

The good news is that our community has decided to do something. They stepped up to address this, with government partners, scared parents, law enforcement, and medical professionals. Rich Bullough is the Health Director at the Summit County Health Department, and says, “We can’t deny that it’s a public-health crisis.”

Seeing gaps in addressing the issue, Bullough and others initiated a community assessment on substance abuse two years ago, funded by both Summit County and Valley Behavioral Health. They wanted to know the scope and nature of the problem so they could find solutions, and the deaths of the two teens spurred everyone into action. A countywide survey of citizens identified five issues that need to be addressed: education, health access, better treatment coordination, funding, and community partnerships.

The first realization was that it not just the schools’ issue but a community issue, and needed to be recognized as such. Secondly, according to Bullough, mental health and substance abuse are always linked, and both needed to a part of the conversation. “But the community didn’t just want a plan, they wanted action,” says Bullough. And that plan is about to be implemented.

“Now, there are at least eight different committees, and more than 100 volunteers working on this,” says Park City Community Foundation Director Ollie Wilder who has helped lead the way. “The deaths of the two boys woke up the community.” There have been a number of notable contributions, including a grant from Rob Katz, CEO of Vail Resorts, and his wife Elana Amsterdam for $250,000 to fund the Communities That Care/Youth Prevention Program, which is headed by Mary Christa Smith.

“We can’t deny that it’s a public-health crisis.”

Smith is the coordinator for young people, and their stakeholders. “It’s about coalition building,” she says. “When this works, and is applied, it has a dramatic impact within the community.” Smith says one concrete step is the presentation of the Stay Sharp program to all area high school and middle school students. It offers facts, the costs of substance abuse, and addresses misinformation. Presenters include young people who have first-hand experience with this destructive problem.

And this is not just a western Summit County problem. North and South Summit are experiencing similar mental health and drug issues, and community meetings and school outreach have brought this once-taboo subject into the open. Addressing those who wish to harm themselves, Valley Behavioral Health is also teaching 8th grade students to Question, Persuade and Refer, if they know someone who wants to harm themselves. Dodi Wilson, Valley’s Summit County local director recognizes that, “When the community comes together a lot can be done.”

Intermountain, the primary health provider in Summit County, has placed the opioid antidote Naloxone into the schools and elsewhere, which will certainly save lives. Plus, Intermountain just recently announced that it would be reducing opioid prescriptions 40 percent, systemwide, which is a, “Huge step in the right direction,” according to Wilder. To date, they have provided training to 2,500 medical professionals at its 22 hospitals, and 180 clinics. Their pharmacies have also collected more than 15,000 pounds of unused medications in disposal drop boxes during 2015.

Intermountain has also integrated mental health screening into all primary care, trying to identify issues before they become full-fledged problems. “We see a better way to do this,” says Park City Hospital Administrator Si Hutt, “instead of people coming to the ER in crisis.” They will be hiring a second full-time psychiatrist at the hospital and have placed a Clinical Social Worker in the Round Valley Clinic, too. The hospital’s Wellness Center also continues to present programs, which are well attended. Additionally, medical professionals are also recognizing that patients with chronic pain, should not be treated the same way as those in acute pain.

The Park City Council has committed $60,00 annually to partly fund a new position at the Health Department, with Summit County funding the rest. Aaron Newman, the new mental health and substance abuse coordinator calls this a “community-led process,” and presented the completed Strategic Plan in September. “The number one need here is medication management,” says Newman, “and mainly for mental-health issues.”

While some parents provide their kids with alcohol, with drugs it’s a different issue. “In Park City, the parents are the biggest enabler,” says Newman of this normalization. “The pot of today is 32 times as potent as that in 2000,” he adds, wondering if parents realize that the marijuana of their youth is not the same as today. Newman also says, “Right now, the jail is our detox- and mental-crisis center,” and that needs to be addressed.

Rich Bullough realizes that, “There isn’t an end solution,” and this will be an ongoing struggle. Summit County and Park City have stepped up, but, as Ollie Wilder says: “Everyone could do more.” The good news is that now the conversation is squarely in the public’s eye.