• Article
  • June 13, 2018

Children's Hospital's New Substance Abuse Program Focuses on Prevention

Substance abuse is a pediatric health issue. Here's how Akron Children's Hospital is bringing care to the community.

With the second highest rate of overdose deaths in the country, Ohio is at the epicenter of the nation's opioid epidemic. To join other efforts in the community addressing the devastating toll of substance abuse disorders, Akron Children's Hospital has created a new substance abuse program.

"Solving this problem will not be easy and will require a multi-disciplinary effort," says Akron Children's President Grace Wakulchik. "We felt the need to be more strategic in our services with the goal of preventing today's children and teens from becoming the next generation of adults struggling with lifelong addiction."

In its first phase, Akron Children's Addiction Services Program will focus on education, prevention, screening, care coordination, community outreach, and referral, with medically-assisted treatment and outpatient care added as the program grows.

"Substance abuse, including the opioid crisis we have all been watching unfold, is a complex societal problem and, contrary to what some people may think, it's a pediatric problem," says Sarah Friebert, M.D., who has been instrumental in creating the new program.

Starting with education

Risky behavior in teens, such as drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana, can have long-term consequences as lower drug initiation age is strongly correlated with later drug and alcohol abuse and dependence. And while heroin is not commonly used among high school students, the rate of use increases significantly among those 18 to 25 years old.

"People don't wake up on the morning of their 18th birthday and put a needle in their arm," says Friebert, the founder and director of Akron Children's Haslinger Family Pediatric Palliative Care Center. "Something has been happening all along, and youth is the time when we have an opportunity to educate and prevent what can become a very disabling, lifelong process."

Michelle Bestic, PharmD, a clinical pharmacologist, says a major goal in creating the program is to help remove the stigma associated with addiction. "Addiction thrives in silence; it flourishes in the dark."

Creating a legacy

Philanthropic support has helped the program get underway. The first major gift to create the program came from Brian Malone and Lea Heidman, who lost their daughter, Alyssa, to a drug overdose. Alyssa's story is familiar in the nation's opioid epidemic. 

As a teen, she was prescribed opioids after several surgeries, and having a history of depression only increased her risk. Despite the love and support of her family and access to top-notch medical care, she could not overcome her addiction and eventually succumbed to it in 2015 when she was 21.

"The Addiction Services Program will become part of Alyssa's legacy," says Friebert. "We greatly appreciate Brian and Lea for their generosity and their willingness to share their story so it may help others."

Send questions or comments to magazine@childrenshospitals.org.