In the past ten years, harm reduction programs have been implemented in Asheville to combat a national opioid epidemic. Naloxone, or Narcan, is an emergency medication used to reverse an opioid overdose and a common harm reduction precaution. Other principles of harm reduction include the education of substance use, the reduction stigma surrounding substance use and other supplies and programs to assist in the treatment of opiate addiction.
Kenleigh Gilbert, a first-year student at UNCA, studying creative writing said learning about harm reduction can help students struggling with substance use, whether it be themselves or their family or friends.
“Even if you don’t know anyone, which I don’t, but living in Asheville, I feel like that’s something you might need to learn and you can carry it with you through life,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert said she wishes there would be more awareness and less stigma on campus surrounding substance use.
“Growing up, you have the DARE program, which is not always an option for everyone. Not everyone can say no to drugs and not everyone’s that fortunate. That’s not everyone’s reality,” Gilbert said. “It stigmatizes drug users.”
Jackie McHargue, the dean of students at UNCA, said substance use intervention is just as necessary as the prevention.
“If we can lessen the fear of the intervention, I think it will save more people, on and off campus,” McHargue said.
At UNCA, McHargue said the general policy surrounding substance use is that the school wants the student to ask for help if they or someone they know are struggling.
“We believe in medical attention more than anything. And so we have a policy that allows students to come forward if they’re concerned about something that they’ve taken voluntarily or involuntarily to get them medical help and that they won’t be in trouble,” McHargue said. “And the same thing goes for a person with them.”
In 2018, 606 community Naloxone reversals were reported, according to Buncombe County Health officials. McHargue said all of the police officers on the school campus train in the administration of naloxone.
“That is one of the beautiful things about Narcan; if we think it is that kind of overdose, Narcan will save their life hopefully, and if that wasn’t it, it’s not going to harm them,” McHargue said.
Gilbert said she was not taught much about harm reduction in school.
“If you have sex-ed in school and all of these other programs in school, then I think that this is something that everybody should be taught and not something that I have to go seek out like I did,” Gilbert said. “I think that’s kind of causing a little bit of the problem in some ways.”
Sue Polston is the executive director of the Sunrise Community for Recovery and Wellness in Asheville, a Recognized Regional Recovery Community Organization by Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services and the North Carolina Department of Health.
Pre-COVID-19, Polston said the drop-in center was a home in West Asheville where people in emotional distress can come to but closed due to the pandemic. But their peer support line is still operating 24/7, 365.
Polston said that Sunrise also has Community also has a syringe service program and offers training programs
including a Positive Recovery Messaging program that focuses on the rhetoric surrounding substance abuse.
“For example, addict or junkie,” Polston said. “Those are not okay. Using that kind of language is what’s going to keep things still stigmatized.”
At the end of August, Gilbert said free Narcan training, fentanyl test strips and other educational materials were distributed at the Odditorium in West Asheville for International Overdose Awareness day.
“I wish that campus would have more access to Narcan training on campus because I don’t drive and the only reason I couldn’t go to that training in West Asheville was because no one could drive me there,” Gilbert said.
According to Health and Counseling officials, UNC Asheville has previously had naloxone on campus for sale.
Jay Cutspec, the director of Health and Counseling at UNCA said UNCA has a Collegiate Recovery Program out of the Health and Counseling Center. According to UNCA health officials, the CRP is a student-led group available for students in recovery from substance use disorders, behavioral addictions or mental health issues.
The CRP helps students live a fulfilling college experience while also choosing to be sober and in recovery by offering support services including weekly check-in meetings, referrals for mental health counseling, psychiatric care, and medical services.
Currently, virtual support group
meetings are offered on Zoom for the Fall semester from 3:30 through 4:30 p.m. on the first and third Wednesday of the month.
If students are interested in getting involved they are encouraged to reach out to the Health and Counseling Center.
McHargue said the school has tried to implement group therapy sessions but struggled.
“For some student groups, it’s a component of their wellness approach,” McHargue said. “Some of the peer educators in the past may have had personal experiences or family or friends experiences that may have motivated them to be a part of that. I know in the past, some folx have been driven to find more ways to be well because of some of the things that they’ve overcome in their past.”
Although there are no official programs or meetings on campus, McHargue said the administration will help connect students who need help to services and programs close to campus.
“There are plenty in the Asheville area, including the Presbyterian church off of campus on Edgewood as well as the Presbyterian church on Merrimon,” she said.
McHargue said if students are struggling with substance use they can visit her – the Dean of Students, the Health and Counseling Center and residential and area directors.
“We will get them connected with the resources,” McHargue said. “We just want them to tell us they need help.”
McHargue said not everybody struggling with substance use needs in-patient therapy just as not everybody finds success in an Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous environment.
“Sometimes asking for help is the hardest thing,” McHargue said.
McHargue said addiction is just another component of wellness and another component of wellness and the stigma surrounding substance use needs to be normalized and discussed more.
“You know, the thing that gets lost about addiction is nobody wakes up one day and goes, ‘Oh, it’s a Thursday, I think I’ll be an addict,’” McHargue said. “They’re normally trying to fill a hole or empty a hole and if we can get to the root of what that is, we can completely change the trajectory of a person’s path and we can get them well.”