Overdose Awareness Day


Hannah Michelle Bussa

August 31 is Overdose Awareness Day. Narcan, an emergency treatment, is available for free in the Omaha community to help prevent overdose deaths. Photo courtesy of Omaha World-Herald.

August 31 is Overdose Awareness Day, a day during Overdose Awareness Week in the United States marked to mourn the lives lost to drug overdoses.

In Omaha and Lincoln this month, there have been an increase in overdose deaths due to fentanyl-laced drugs.

“Most drug users are unaware that the drug they are using is laced with fentanyl,” Andre’a Bowens, the owner and a counselor at ABowens Drug and Alcohol Counseling, said. “According to the CDC, synthetic opioid fatalities rose 55% between September 2019 and September 2020.”

Bowens said the CDC reported that 90,000 Americans died from overdose in the last 12 months.

“There has been an increase in fentanyl overdoses and deaths, but it is nothing new,” said Payton Hogan, PLMHP, PLADC. “Fentanyl has been a legal pharmaceutical used and prescribed by medical doctors for quite some time. It is highly effective in creating a euphoric feeling, highly addictive, and deadly even in small amounts.”

Hogan got his M.S. in Clinical Mental Health from UNO.

An overdose is taking too much of a substance. Bowens said what constitutes “too much” varies from person to person.

“Studies show a significant increase in the number of Americans using alcohol or drugs to cope with the pressures of the pandemic,” Bowens said. “Stigma, fear, and lack of access to affordable care feed into the vicious cycle of drug use, tolerance, and addiction. Addiction is a treatable disease and can be managed.”

Hogan said the best way to stay safe from overdose is to not use drugs.

“But I am a realist and understand that people do and always will [use drugs] even if they are banned or illegal,” he said. “Practicing ‘safe consumption’ and harm reduction is one of the best ways to lower risk of overdose. Limiting your use to smaller and specific amounts and not using other people’s substances or obtaining from unfamiliar dealers can help reduce risk, but it can never fully eliminate it.”

Symptoms of overdose can vary. Bowens said they can include nausea, vomiting, unresponsiveness, loss of coordination, dizziness, chest pain, diarrhea, severe stomach pain, abdominal cramps, unusual sleepiness, unusual difficulty waking up, or breathing problems—ranging from slow, shallow breathing to no breathing.

For loved ones looking for signs of overdose, Hogan said the most common signs are dilated pupils, abnormally increased body temperature, nausea and vomiting, chest pains, difficulty breathing, seizures, and convulsions or tremors.

If someone is experiencing an overdose, Narcan (Naloxone) can be used to treat opioid overdose in an emergency. It is available as a nasal spray for use in the community.

“Nebraska recently partnered with some local pharmacies to distribute free Narcan kits to the public to help prevent overdose,” Hogan said. “If you or somebody you know uses opioids that are not prescribed, check out Kubatt Pharmacy and various Kholls Pharmacies to see how you can get one.”

Bowens said to find local free Narcan and Naloxone resources, people can also contact Douglas County Health Center or the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Beyond knowing how to access Narcan and recognizing signs of overdose, loved ones can take steps to support those at risk of overdose.

Hogan said it is important not to enable their habits, like giving them money to purchase substances.

“[It also looks like] becoming educated on what addiction looks like and how to support others suffering from substance use disorders,” Hogan said.

Bowens said not to be judgmental or blame loved ones.

“Be genuinely supportive, caring, and kind,” she said. “Recognize addiction is not a character flaw or choice, but rather a disease. Assist your loved one in seeking help. Offer unconditional love.”

She also said to have firm boundaries.

“You cannot walk this journey for them; however, you can walk with them,” she said.

As addiction is a disease, there are many causes.

“Factors such as peer pressure, physical and sexual abuse, early exposure to drugs, stress, and parental guidance can greatly affect a person’s likelihood of drug use and addiction,” Bowens said. “Genetic and environmental factors interact with critical developmental stages in a person’s life to affect addiction risk, also.”

Hogan said substance abuse is a compilation of many causes, many times starting as just an experimentation phase.

“As trauma and stressors in life become present, some people seek instant gratification in certain substances which creates a mental dependence,” he said. “Other substances have nothing to do with trauma and more with the substance itself and how it affects the physical chemistry of your body increasing or depleting certain hormones such as dopamine, adrenalin, and serotonin. This causes a physical dependence on the substance.”

Hogan said it is important to be more proactive and realistic rather than reactive and unrealistic.

“Drugs aren’t going anywhere,” he said. “Putting harsher laws and punishment on use and possession will not eliminate the problem. It will instead oppress and demonize populations of people.”

He said it is more important to offer safe and healthy strategies to lower risk of overdose.

“Many places like the state of Oregon, Canada and other countries in Europe have already begun to roll out proactive care instead of reactive, and have lowered overdose rates,” he said.

Hogan works with a wide array of people but has extensive experience with pretrial and post-release populations.

“Lots of times substance use disorders have been portrayed as criminality and led to incarcerated individuals who really need substance use treatment,” he said.

Laws are changing to provide programs such as drug court, young adult court, family court, veteran court, and more. Hogan said this helps people by removing incarceration and offering treatment services instead, with the opportunity to not have criminal drug charges on their record.

Bowens said the first step to get help for drug use is to find a professional who is licensed to diagnose substance use disorders. They will conduct a substance use evaluation, which will be needed to access substance use services.

“Substance abuse treatment has five levels of care: early intervention, outpatient, intensive outpatient/partial hospitalization, residential/inpatient services and medically managed intensive inpatient services,” Bowens said.

Her practice, ABowens Drug and Alcohol Counseling, provides outpatient substance use services in Nebraska as well as Georgia.

Omaha has multiple residential treatment facilities as well, including Siena Francis House, Nova, Campus for Hope, Inroads to Recovery, and Lasting Hope.

“Substance abuse treatment is something an individual has to want for themselves in order for it to be effective,” Hogan said. “It is geared at understanding the root causes in each individual of use and developing new healthy patterns. It takes a lot of intentional work but is not impossible.”

Hogan completes both substance use and mental health evaluations to diagnose disorders and come up with treatment plans.

“I can also help refer and implement community resources to limit relapse and recidivism of old behaviors and thoughts patterns that led to use,” he said. “This looks like processing trauma, filling out economic assistance papers, creating positive peer supports who are sober and so on.”

UNO students can also find support on campus. The UNO Collegiate Recovery Community (CRC) is a common, safe space for students to support each other.

Sarah Kole is the CRC Coordinator. She said students can find the CRC on the Dodge Campus in University Village #417.

“We use [this space] for weekly meetings, socializing and special events,” she said. “Students often use this space to study – we offer free printing!”

Members of the community have 24/7 access to the space with their MavCards.

“Staff and students work really hard to make sure our community is a welcoming and safe space for all,” Kole said. “Our hope is that students show up fully as themselves and that this is a community on campus where they feel seen and supported.”

Kole said students shouldn’t have to sacrifice their recovery to be part of the campus community. The CRC allows students to meet others and build important relationships.

Part of the mission of the CRC is to reduce the stigma around addiction.

“By reducing stigma on campus and in our community, we reduce barriers to individuals accessing necessary services and supports,” she said. “It’s important to remember addiction is a substance use disorder—a mental health condition. As with other diseases, it’s not simply a lack of desire or will to heal. However, addiction can be treated! With holistic supports, we can prevent overdoses and truly help individuals live a full and healthy life.”

For more information on the CRC at UNO, fill out this contact form.