Holding purple balloons with the names of loved ones who had passed away, a group of children from the Tonto Apache Tribe recently walked through the reservation as part of an effort to raise awareness about opioid and addiction-related deaths.
It was the second year the tribe had hosted an opioid overdose prevention day, said Lisa Belonga, the tribe’s substance abuse and social services director.
The day started with a talk from a man who had overdosed three times on the reservation. He spoke to roughly 18 adult tribal members and non-natives.
That man had survived three heroin overdoses. He survived thanks in part to the greater availability of Naloxone, an injection used to reverse an overdose in an emergency.
Belonga said it is cases like this that prompted the tribe to start the program. Today, any tribal member can receive Naloxone and keep the drug at their home during an emergency.
She said many tribal members have opted to take the drug home for just such an emergency.
She said many of the names the children wrote on their balloons represented aunts and uncles that had died from overdose, whether alcohol or drugs.
“The tribe has been affected by overdose and by awareness we not only hope to lower the number of overdoses on the tribe, but also within the community,” she said.
Belonga moved to Payson from Michigan in April 2018 to work for the tribe. Before that she was a caseworker for a tribe in Michigan and before that she ran a residential hope house.
“My main goal here is to bring awareness and education about substance abuse,” she said.
She said the tribe had been without a substance abuse counselor for 1.5 years and therefore there was a lack of education about substance abuse issues when she arrived.
“We do struggle with (substance abuse) here,” she said. “We are not unlike any other community.”
In Payson, heroin, methamphetamine and prescription pill abuse remain a rampant issue, according to the Payson Police Department.
On the tribe, with only 174 members, the traumatic effects of an overdose are felt throughout the community.
“We are trying to be more proactive,” she said. “Because the tribe is so small I haven’t met anybody that hasn’t been impacted by alcoholism or an alcohol death or an opioid death.”
Besides distributing Naloxone to tribal members, the tribe is slowly implementing additional services to help members get help. In September, Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and Al-Anon meetings started back up in the tribal administration building.
And Belonga said she offers some kind of substance abuse education monthly.
Tribes in Arizona largely lack access to tribal-specific opioid related health data and have limited resources for treatment and prevention. National and state policies, such as the 21st Century Cures Act and the Arizona Opioid Epidemic Act, are efforts to reduce opioid-related deaths and treat opioid use disorder, yet these initiatives exclude direct funding to tribes.
The Roundup asked the tribe for data on the number of overdoses seen in recent years, but did not receive the data as of press time.
“Tribes in Arizona have been facing an opioid crisis since 2007. American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/AN) in AZ had the second highest opioid overdose death rate from 2007 to 2016 compared to others in the state,” according to the October 2018 report, The Opioid Epidemic in Indian Country: What Tribal Leaders in Arizona Need to Know, by the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Inc. Tribal Epidemiology Center.
In Arizona, opioid-related deaths have tripled since 2012 and more than two people a day die due to opioid-related causes. Between June 2017 and April 2018, 1,144 Arizonans have died from a suspected opioid overdose.
Gila County had the second highest opioid prescription rate in 2016 in Arizona with 110 opioid prescriptions per 100 residents. Besides the Tonto Apache, there are two other tribes in Gila County, the San Carlos Apache Tribe and White Mountain Apache Tribe.
There were approximately 430 AI/AN that had drug-related deaths from 2006 to 2016 in Arizona. In 2016, 16 of the 50 drug-related deaths of AI/AN involved heroin and other opioids (e.g., codeine, morphine, oxycodone), according to the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) vital statistics.
Nationally, on average, 130 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
Native Americans and Alaska Native populations had the second highest overdose rates from all opioids in 2017 among racial and ethnic groups, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And since 2000, Native American overdose deaths from prescriptions and opioids have increased nearly sixfold, faster than any other racial group.
A recently released database of prescription opioids reveals between 2006 and 2012, there was enough prescription pain pills doled out every year in Gila County to supply every person with 56 pills.
And the pharmacy that handled the most pills in northern Gila County was Walgreens, at the corner of State Routes 87 and 260 in Payson.
Some 3.8 million pills were shipped to this pharmacy in a six-year period; about enough for 57 pills per year for each of the 9,459 people who live within five miles of the pharmacy. This is according to a database maintained by the Drug Enforcement Administration. The database tracks the path of more than 70 billion pills that contain oxycodone and hydrocodone from manufacturers to retail pharmacies nationwide. The Washington Post recently published the database on their website.
In Arizona, from 2006 to 2012, there were 1.7 billion prescription pain pills supplied to the state.