“People think the opposite of addiction is sobriety. It’s not. It’s connection.”
This statement, given by an individual attending NRPA’s convening on youth impacted by the opioid crisis, bears repeating. Those of us who attended the convening in Elizabethton, Tenn., have repeated the statement on a near-daily basis since hearing it. We’ve repeated it because it is so simple, so obvious, so clear, and, because across the park and recreation field, our power to cultivate connection is one of our greatest strengths.
Every day there are 192 overdose deaths in this country, with the central Appalachian region disproportionately impacted. In Appalachia, pill mills and drug dealers found a vacuum in areas where disinvestment left communities vulnerable. Disinvestment in the economy and job market fueled the deterioration of these communities as well as the public recreation spaces where previous generations congregated, connected and thrived. In the afterword of his award-winning book Dreamland, author Sam Quinones concludes:
“I believe more strongly than ever that the antidote to heroin is community. If you want to keep kids off heroin, make sure people in your neighborhood do things together, in public, often…don't have play dates, just go out and play.”
During the last several years, communities in Appalachia have been searching for solutions. With support from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), a component of the Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, five communities may have found them.
In November, NRPA brought together park and recreation professionals and national and regional experts in rural, central Appalachia for a convening focused on supporting youth impacted by the opioid crisis through the development and implementation of a youth mentorship program. A pivotal moment in the training occurred after a somber conversation on the raw realities of addiction when a peer recovery specialist awakened the room. With incredible grace and humility, she calmly said, “People think the opposite of addiction is sobriety. It’s not. It’s connection.”
The weight of the room instantly shifted. Folks went from feeling overwhelmed and heartbroken to feeling inspired and empowered. Everyone suddenly understood why they were in that room. Park and recreation professionals have an incredible power to build connection — connection to people, connection to community, connection to opportunity, connection to the outdoors and connection to a healthy, happy lifestyle.
NRPA has admittedly struggled in the wake of this epidemic to demonstrate exactly how park and recreation professionals can not only respond to the challenges they experience on the front lines of the opioid crisis every day, but also how to support all of those impacted and stop the pipeline of substance misuse. The statement shared in Elizabethton brought some clarity to this struggle from a prevention lens. Park and recreation professionals have a clear role to play in addressing the epidemic by leveraging their strengths to foster connections, supporting those experiencing adversity and trauma while creating positive experiences for our communities.
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs)
As human beings, we all need connection. We may be loud or quiet, social butterflies or homebodies, introverts or extroverts. Whoever we are and whatever connection means to us, we all deserve the opportunity to feel the power of connection in a safe environment. And all children deserve to have connections to compassionate peers and caring adults, especially those who have endured adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and trauma.
As outlined in an NRPA blog post and webinar published earlier this year, ACEs refer to all types of abuse, neglect and other traumatic experiences that occur to youth under the age of 18. ACEs include, but are not limited to:
- Living with someone who is depressed, mentally ill
- Living with someone who is a heavy drinker or uses illicit substances
- Experiencing swearing, insults or being “put down” by an adult
- Going through a household divorce and domestic violence
- Enduring sexual assault
- Encountering racism
We knew these experiences could impact youth development, but until the groundbreaking CDC-Kaiser Permanente ACE Study in the late 1990s, we didn’t know just how grave of an impact. This study demonstrated the widespread prevalence of ACEs across all populations, with more than two-thirds of study participants having at least one ACE, and more than one in five having three or more ACEs. The researchers were able to demonstrate how ACEs during childhood contributed to negative health and well-being outcomes for adults, ranging from poor educational and economic outcomes, decreased physical and mental well-being, risk of unplanned pregnancy, higher risk of chronic disease and a higher risk of substance misuse.
In some of the communities hit hardest by the opioid epidemic, nearly 50 percent of children are living with adults other than biological parents. Trauma in these communities, just like communities that experience intergenerational racism and poverty, is systemic. Domestic violence, substance misuse, poverty, racism, hunger, neglect — the list goes on. Each of these factors can hinder a child’s ability to develop into a healthy, self-confident and connected adult, and, at this scale, it can hinder an entire community’s potential to prosper.
However, positive childhood experiences (PCEs) can outweigh ACEs and lead to more positive outcomes. PCEs include things like feeling supported by family, having nonparents adults who take an interest in your life, feeling safe at home, having a sense of belonging and participating in the community. Park and recreation professionals can help to foster these PCEs.
The Prevention Connection
ACEs and trauma can leave an individual feeling alienated, resentful and alone. That is why we are so fortunate to be part of an industry that focuses on bringing people together to connect. In Quinones’ Dreamland he illustrates the power of connection and prosperity through parks and recreation so well when he says:
“No one had pools in their backyards. Rather, there were parks, tennis and basketball courts, and window-shopping and levees to slide down. Families ice-skated at Millbrook Park in winter and picnicked at Roosevelt Lake in summer, or sat late into the evening as their kids played Kick the Can in the street… All of this recreation let a working-class family feel well-off.”
Amid this epidemic, decision makers and leaders are understandably preoccupied with investments in provider and prescriber education, treatment access, overdose prevention, and rehabilitation and recovery supports. This crisis though, calls for stark and intense public health investments and comprehensive strategies that address the root causes of substance misuse, including ACEs, trauma and a lack of connection. Park and recreation professionals are part of the solution.
Next Up in this Blog Series: The Naloxone Debate — To Carry or Not to Carry
As NRPA has navigated the opioid crisis over the last few years, one of the greatest debates among members of the field centers on whether park and recreation professionals should carry and be trained on how to administer Naloxone (Narcan®). Naloxone is a medication, often referred to as an “opioid antagonist,” meaning it can reverse and block the effect of opioids. It’s used to rapidly counter the life-threatening effects of an opioid overdose, for example, morphine and heroin overdose. While there are differing views among park and recreation professionals and the public about Naloxone, the fact of the matter is that Naloxone is extremely safe, it can only affect people with opioids in their system and it saves human lives.
*Do you have a story to tell about this epidemic or how your agency is responding? Feel free to email it to me! We firmly believe that through shared stories and experiences, the park and recreation field can continue to support and elevate the work we do as public health advocates, creating healthier, stronger communities for all.
Previously in this Blog Series
Cassie Pais is NRPA’s Senior Development Officer.