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NCADA launches ‘Talk About It’ as St. Louis region is poised to break record for opioid deaths

Howard Weissman and Nichole Dawsey of NCADA
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

The number of opioid-related deaths in the St. Louis region is poised to once again break a record.

Opioid-related deaths include overdoses on prescription painkillers, heroin and, increasingly, fentanyl - a prescription drug more potent than heroin that is often mixed with other substances.

In 2016, 712 people died due to opioids. That number is expected to be about 750 people in 2017, explained Howard Weissman, executive director of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse (NCADA).

Weissman along with Nichole Dawsey, NCADA’s director of prevention education, joined St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh on Thursday to talk about the scope of the problem and a new program that seeks to prevent people from getting addicted to opioids in the first place.

The new program, Talk About It, is encouraging parents to talk with their children about behaviors, boundaries and drug abuse.

“When [an overdose] happens to someone young, it becomes much more of an epic tragedy,” Weissman said. “[That] explains why we are focusing our efforts on the youngest people and as far upstream as we can go to prevent addiction in the first place.”

To help parents have conversations with their kids, NCADA is providing age-appropriate talking kits. The kit for pre-kindergarten through 2nd grade doesn’t specifically focus on opioids but suggests conversation starters such as “What does it mean to be a grown-up?” and “What are some yucky things that you shouldn’t put into your body?”

“Each conversation kit starts with some tips, how to have the conversation and even a suggestion of the kind of environment,” Dawsey said.

Middle school kids, she explained, don’t often do well with one-on-one conversations and making eye contact. In such cases, she suggested having the conversation in the car or while cleaning out the garage.

Last year, NCADA reached 74,000 children in 260 schools.

“Scare tactics don’t really work,” Weissman said. “Scare tactics might scare them for a minute but the teen brain is wired to make them think they are invincible.”

Plus, it just so happens that many parents begin to pull-back from setting guidelines and having difficult conversations at the moment they need to be more present, Weissman and Dawsey explained. After all, the human brain isn’t fully developed until age 25.

“We know that teens are listening and we know that parents who set clear and specific rules and boundaries reduce the chances that their child will develop a problem by half,” Weissman said.

NCADA volunteers are hosting Talk About It Community Day on Saturday in which they’ll be at 20 highly visible places around the region with very large pill bottle replicas to raise awareness and hand out conversation kits.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex HeuerEvie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Alex is the executive producer of "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.