By ALAYNA FULLER
PARKERSBURG - The West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission is joining with the state's two largest universities for an opioid prevention program this fall.
The opioid awareness summit will be Sept. 17 at the WVU Coliseum in Morgantown and Sept. 18 at Marshall's Cam Henderson Center in Huntington.
Prevention education will be the main focus of the summit, with a primary goal to provide universal education to all students and empower them with knowledge to make healthy choices and have lifelong wellness.
The summit will kick off an extensive initiative focused on prevention, compassionate treatment programs, and educational and employment opportunities.
"We can no longer stand idly by and watch this terrible epidemic destroy our young people and tear our families apart," said Bernie Dolan, SSAC executive director.
West Virginia has the highest rate of drug overdose deaths involving opioids in the United States. In 2017, there were 833 drug overdose deaths involving opioids in West Virginia - a rate of 49.6 deaths per 100,000 people. This is double the rate from 2010 and three-times higher than the national rate of 14.6 deaths per 100,000 people, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Additionally, the opioid epidemic is costing West Virginia's economy an estimated $8.8 billion a year, according to an analysis by a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute.
Early intervention, treatment options, supporting families with substance use disorder and providing options for life after treatment are the main goals of the initiative being presented at the summit.
"Today's students face many social and economic challenges," said Steven Paine, West Virginia state schools superintendent. "The opioid epidemic has hit West Virginia especially hard, and we must take every step possible to keep students safe and healthy so they can reach their highest potential."
Over 150,000 middle and high school students will participate in the summit, either in person or via a live stream.
West Virginia University President Gordon Gee and Marshall University President Jerome Gilbert spoke at Tuesday's news conference in support of the summit and the initiative.
"We have made battling the opioid epidemic a major focus across the West Virginia University system," Gee said. "Programs and research are underway in essentially every college at the university, from medicine to psychology to counseling and beyond.
"The role of our universities and the role of our educational system is to make sure that we provide an initiative to allow these young people to have an opportunity to see hope in their future," he said.
Gilbert also mentioned Marshall University's involvement in fighting the opioid epidemic and praised the initiative.
"At Marshall University, we have been working with partners over the past several years to tackle this issue which impact(s) the very core values of West Virginia society," Gilbert said. "The summit will be a great kickoff event to launch the program and prevention efforts that will be coming over the next year."
In conjunction with the summit, the SSAC announced the "Be a Game Changer" initiative to provide a way for West Virginians to learn more about, and fight, the opioid epidemic. People can go to www.wvgamechanger.com to learn more, and teens will be encouraged to monitor the website for a chance to win games and gift cards.
The Game Changer program is currently being developed and will be up and running in September.
Former WVU Sports Information Director Joe Boczek, who is coordinating the initiative for the SSAC, will be traveling with educators and administrators to meet with businesses and corporate executives to seek funding for various programs that will ensure the success of the initiative.
"This issue personally has touched my family, and I am very aware what opioid addiction can do to young people, athletes and the family unit," Boczek said. "I am confident already with the talks I have had that the West Virginia corporate community will step up in a big way to ensure we are successful. Together, we are indeed going to 'change the game.'"