Which substance is the biggest threat to people in the Ozarks? This used to be a pretty straight forward answer: methamphetamines.
Meth is a powerful psychostimulant that impacts the central nervous system. It causes an intense sense of euphoria by releasing high levels of dopamine in the brain. Before 2018, Missouri had the highest meth production per capita in the nation, but some still wonder if meth is still the biggest drug problem facing Ozarks residents.
What about opioids? Is there an opioid crisis going on? Fentanyl is a potent synthetic opioid drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use as a pain reliever and anesthetic. It is approximately 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin. Just 2 milligrams of fentanyl, the same as 10 grains of salt, is considered a lethal dose.
“More than 4% of the Springfield Community (Greene, Christian and Webster Counties) has a substance use disorder, a rate higher than the rates for Missouri and the United States, at 3.3% and 3.5% respectively,” The Springfield-Greene County Health Department website says. “Unfortunately, this translates to an overdose mortality rate that is also higher than the rest of the state and nation, at more than 27 deaths per 100,000 residents in the Springfield Community.”
I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) and a Certified Clinical Trauma Specialist (CCTS-I) at Victory Mission in North Springfield. We are a faith-driven organization that provides emergency relief through outreach services and long-term empowerment through programming and social enterprises. We have a men’s shelter, outreach, and men and women’s year-long programming. In the last five years, I have counseled 502 men. Sixty percent reported struggling with meth; 38% reported they struggled with alcohol; and 18% said they struggled with opioids.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 107,735 people died from drug overdose between August 2021 and August 2022. Sixty-six percent of these cases involved synthetic opioids like fentanyl.
Between 2019 and 2021, we lost 13 men to drug overdose at Victory Mission—and fentanyl was involved in all of them.
Reports from local examiners state that a popular combination of meth and fentanyl has been responsible for most Greene County overdose deaths in the last few years. Statistics show that while fentanyl is the most lethal drug in Greene County, methamphetamines are still a huge problem.
Earlier this year, the Springfield News-Leader talked to local medical examiners and reported that “restrictions on products containing pseudoephedrine, a main ingredient in methamphetamine, have made manufacturing less common in southwest Missouri. However, the supply of meth seems to be just as steady.”
Chief Forensic Investigator Tom Van De Berg told the News-Leader that “there is a strong culture of meth use here. Now with Sudafed being behind the counter and regulated, I can’t tell you the last time I saw a meth lab. But we see more meth than ever because it’s cheaper to bring in and you don’t have to worry about manufacturing and people smelling it and your lab blowing up.”
Practically speaking, new state laws, restrictions on certain medications and the use of Narcan have all been helpful in reducing drug-related deaths. Narcan (a brand name for the drug Naloxone) is a nasal spray medication approved by the FDA designed to quickly reverse opioid overdose.
According to the latest research from the Springfield-Greene County Health Department, “Narcan is effective in reversing overdose in 93.5% of cases—and in one study, 84.3% of those who experienced overdose and were saved by Narcan were alive a year later.”
But what if there is an additional part of the solution? What’s something each one of us can do?
As I’ve counseled at Victory Mission these last five years, I’ve seen up close how unhealthy relationships (or a lack of relationships altogether) can impact a person in extremely harmful ways.
Many of the men I have counseled had very challenging childhoods. For example, men I talk to report abuse, observing abuse, neglect, divorce, substance use and exposure to others’ poor mental health present in their upbringings.
Research shows childhood adversity can be a huge indicator for the risk of substance use. At the Mission, we use the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) questionnaire, a 10-question test that measures traumas experienced before age 18. People with an ACE score of 5 or higher are between 7 and 10 times more likely to use illegal drugs and become addicted. The average ACE score at for people at Victory Mission is 6.
I also lead a relationships class at Victory Mission called Within My Reach through the Good Dads program. The primary goal of the curriculum is to help people have successful relationships and lives. The class is “based on up-to-date research in communication, conflict management, affect regulation, commitment, expectations, intimacy enhancement, emotional safety and physical safety,” says the product’s website.
Within My Reach also reports that “people who have strong ties with family and friends who lend support—and who they help in return—tend to do the best in life,” and “one of the best predictors of relationship success is how well two people can manage conflicts and disagreements.”
I have taught this class for five years at Victory Mission. Almost all of the people I have met with or had in class reported they did not have any strong ties with supportive people, and that their relationships were full of conflict. Among the more than 500 men I’ve counseled at Victory Mission, 94% had parents that separated or got divorced. A vast majority of them also grew up without a father.
Unhealthy relationships of all kinds, or a lack of relationships altogether, is what puts many people at risk. Imagine what could happen if everyone had positive, supportive, healthy relationships. Could we reduce their risk of substance use? Instead of having consequences, maybe there could be benefits.
So what is our exact part? It starts within each one of us. We can be helpful in two ways: preventative and restorative. We have to challenge our own prejudices and beliefs about people who struggle with addiction to see if they are reasonable and truthful. We are all on the same playing field. Every life has a purpose. How we perceive people and how we interact with them matters. In the Bible, one of the two greatest commandments is to “love your neighbor as yourself,” (Mark 12:29-31). We do not get to choose our neighbor. Everyone is our neighbor.
The “Golden Rule” says something similar in Matthew 7:12: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them…”
This is true in respect to friends and enemies alike. Regardless of the nature of the relationship—a child, a family member, a romantic relationship, someone in the community, or a stranger—we need to own our issues and show compassion as we treat them like we want to be treated. The long-term statistics for Within My Reach show relationships are strongest when there is mutual respect and trust.
Therefore, assess your own heart and belief system. Be kind. This is a slow process, so be patient. We are all walking around wounded. You never know what someone has gone through or is trying to get through. Be careful not to identify people by their actions. I work at a men’s shelter, but I do not work with addicts and felons. I work with purpose-filled people who struggle with addiction or have felonies.
None of us are defined by our circumstances. How we think about, talk about and treat people of all shapes and sizes matters. Maybe this is part of the solution to help substance use in the Ozarks.
So take a parenting class, assist Good Dads, get involved at your church or be a positive impact on your neighborhood and community. It is possible that those old relationship wounds can be healed by healthy and supportive relationships now. I have seen it happen over my years with Victory Mission and Good Dads. There is hope.
Choose to be kind to one another and love them as you want to be loved. By doing so, I believe we can help lower the risk of substance use.
Kevin Stratton, MA, LPC CCTS-I serves as the counseling director at Victory Mission in Springfield, MO. He is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), a Certified Clinical Trauma Specialist (CCTS-I), and a Certified Biblical Counselor (ABC). Kevin also spent 18 years working for churches in Missouri and Texas dealing with youth, media, worship, discipleship and care ministries. He has been married to his beautiful wife, Carey, for 12 years. They have a daughter, Esther (8), and a son, Ezra (4).