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Health Rocks

The game is “Legal or Illegal?” Name a substance and answer the question.

Caffeine? That’s legal. Methamphetamines? Illegal. Alcohol? Depends on the age of the user. And opioids? Could be both.

The game with a serious message was played during a 4-H meeting at Humboldt’s East Elementary, part of “Health Rocks,” a curriculum focusing on substance abuse. 4-H is the youth development program for UT and Tennessee State University Extension. C.J. Bryson, a teen volunteer, lead the exercise and talked to the fourth-graders about making smart decisions. “By me teaching them these things, they know that it’s something that’s not good for them, and they shouldn’t do it,” Bryson says.

With a nationwide epidemic killing more than 100 people a day in the U.S., the UT Institute of Agriculture is working to fight Tennessee’s opioid crisis. Health Rocks is one way. Extension agents also work with recovering addicts struggling to return to society.

Part of the recent 4-H “Health Rocks” meeting included teaching children about the dangers of opioid addiction. “Their parents may have these in the house, and kids may think it’s candy,” Carrie Joyner, with UT Extension in Gibson County, says. “I know a lot of them look like M&Ms or different things. I think it’s very important for us to educate them.”

Gibson County Sheriff Paul Thomas, a former narcotics officer, knows how opioids tear families apart and destroy lives. In a county with 49,000 residents, doctors wrote almost 69,000 prescriptions for opioids in 2016, according to the Tennessee Department of Health. That year, the county had 11 drug overdoses, with five linked to opioids and two from heroin. It also had 176 nonfatal overdoses.

“The OxyContin, the morphine, the codeine—that’s our biggest problem right now. Every week we get a half dozen or so that come to my correctional facility that will list their selves as an opioid addict,” Thomas says.

Ashley Garrett knows the pain of opioid addiction. She’s in treatment at the Women of Hope recovery center near Jackson, a place she credits for saving her life. In her past, she would overdose four or five times a year. “I came in because I’d been addicted to heroin for 16 years, started IV heroin at 14 years old, and just lost control of my life,” Garrett says. “It does not take long to get addicted to opiates before your body starts withdrawing, and at that point it’s really hard to stop.”

But Garrett did stop. Clean almost a year, cautiously measuring time as a recovering addict with each passing day, she’s gaining strength emotionally and recovering other parts of her life, including money management.

“We lack the discipline that it takes to be able to have stable finances because we’re so used to spending everything that we have all at one time when we get it— we don’t know what it’s like to save,” Garrett says. “She was able to break that down into practical terms that I could use.”

“She” is Amy Elizer, UT Extension director for Madison County, who teaches a class at the recovery center called “All Your Money.” As part of the class, Elizer instructs women on saving, using credit and budgeting.

“Being clean and sober from addiction and not dealing with it anymore gives them a new lease on their finances,” Elizer says. “Any habit that we choose to break—however much it costs—we’re going to have more money to spend on necessities, on savings.”

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