Drug-overdose death-surge moves coalition to action as school starts

An Interstate 10 billboard near Elliot Road promotes Tempe Coalition’s message on the opioid crisis. — Wrangler News photo

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As thousands of kids across Tempe and West Chandler gear up for the start of the school year, the new program director for Tempe Coalition has a warning for them and their parents: Drugs kill.

“I care because kids in our community are dying. It’s destroying families,” Bernadette Coggins said. “I know families that have lost their kids. It could happen to anyone and I want to do my very best as a parent to be in the know and to know what to look for.”

Coggins, the mother of three sons, served eight years on the Kyrene Governing Board and spent more than a decade volunteering for Tempe Coalition. Last April, she was hired as leader of the coalition, a grant-funded community organization that seeks to reduce underage drinking and substance abuse. Her interview with wranglernews.com took place the day the federal government released statistics that reveal a 29 percent increase in overdose deaths in the U.S.

During 2020, 93,000 people in the U.S.—the highest number ever recorded—died from drug overdoses, up from about 72,000 deaths the previous year. Not all of those who succumbed were underage, of course, but many were. And those young people and their families are the focus of Tempe Coalition — families like the Mahans.

DEADLY ADDICTION

Terry and Annette Mahan’s son, Daniel, developed an addiction to opioids that proved fatal. The former star football player at Chandler High was receiving treatment but was home for the holidays in 2019 when his parents discovered him unresponsive on his bedroom floor. Paramedics were unable to revive him.

The loss of their son has propelled the Mahans into action to try and prevent similar tragedies in other families. They’ve joined forces with Tempe Coalition in training sessions and educational opportunities for members. Coggins says the Mahans will continue to share their story publicly.

“We know that one of the areas we’d like to focus is athletes,” Coggins said.

After a serious injury or surgery, athletes sometimes are given opiates for relief from severe pain. One drug that’s been linked to overdose deaths is fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine and about 50 times as potent as heroin. Fentanyl, made in labs, also is used illegally.

In its illegal form, fentanyl is sold as a “powder, dropped onto blotter paper, put in eye droppers and nasal sprays, or made into pills that look like other prescription opioids,” according to the National Institutes of Health website. Synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, are now the most common drugs involved in overdose deaths in the U.S.

Stephanie Siete, a member of Tempe Coalition, has been involved in drug education for more than 20 years and has travelled the nation in her quest to inform and warn the public about drug abuse. She now  is a public information officer with Community Bridges.

“It’s pretty sad that people are learning the hard way how prevalent these drugs are,” Siete said.

She described the federal government’s report on the surge in overdose deaths as “devastating.”

“These are preventable deaths,” Siete said. “Seventy percent of them are from opioids. People go into respiratory distress and stop breathing.”

When users overdose on fentanyl, their breathing slows or stops altogether, so oxygen doesn’t reach the brain, leading to a condition known as hypoxia. Ultimately, that can lead to brain damage, coma and death.

One of Tempe Coalition’s efforts is to train people in how to administer Narcan, an inhaled medication that’s used for the emergency treatment of suspected opioid overdose. The training takes about two hours and participants get an in-depth look at how important it is to have Narcan on hand just in case.

“It’s good for all of us to be trained and have that available,” Coggins said. “You never know when you’re going to make an impact.”

POWERFUL MESSAGES

Tempe Coalition currently has two campaigns going, both focused on the opioid crisis. One has been dubbed “Shatter the Stigma AZ” and the other calls attention to the deadly threat of counterfeit pills.

Four digital billboards, on Interstate 10, State Route 143 and Loop 101 near Tempe, contain powerful messages like “One Pill Can Kill,” and “Opioids Don’t Discriminate.” They’re designed to drive home Tempe Coalition’s message of “how important it is for parents to be aware and how great the threat is to our youth,” according to Coggins.

A growing number of people who overdose via pills take those that have been contaminated with other substances, like Fentanyl.

“All of these kids do not mean to die. They think they are taking a Xanax or a Percocet,” Coggins said.

Tempe City Councilmember Joel Navarro, a paramedic with the Phoenix Fire Department, is on Tempe Coalition’s opioid-prevention committee.

“We are noticing an increase of opioid use not only in our city but across the nation. There’s still a lot more work we need to do in terms of getting the message out,” Navarro said.

Tempe Coalition’s work is not limited to opioid abuse, however. Members are also warning parents that the marijuana being sold on the streets now is much stronger than ever, with an even higher concentration of THC, the psychoactive component of cannabis.

“The bottom line is, we have a problem with marijuana in our community,” Coggins said. “This is not the same marijuana that your parents smoked back in the day. Some of the methods and synthetics are close to 99 percent THC. Parents need to be aware and know the danger of SnapChat as a mode of how your teens are getting substances.”

Coggins is encouraging the community to join Tempe Coalition in its battle against under-age drug abuse and alcohol use.

“My goal is to bring awareness and recruit new members to have a voice at the table. It takes a village in raising a healthy community,” Coggins said.

Information: tempecoalition.org

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Joyce Coronel
Joyce Coronel has been interviewing and writing stories since she was 12, and she’s got the scrapbooks to prove it. The mother of five grown sons and native of Arizona is passionate about local news and has been involved in media since 2002, coming aboard at Wrangler News in 2015. Joyce believes strongly that newspapers are a lifeline to an informed public and a means by which neighbors can build a sense of community—vitally important in today’s complex world.

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