‘Alone and scared.’ Wake County hears advice on how to spend opioid settlement money

Jack Brigham was 8 years old when he had his first drink.

“It progressed slowly at first, and then rather quickly,” he said. “My downfall was methamphetamine. And using that and lots of other substances.”

His parents sought various treatments and support before eventually turning to a facility in Tennessee. There wasn’t a treatment center in North Carolina they could afford based on their insurance, said his mother, Rebecca.

The now-18-year-old described the treatment center as “hell” but said it helped him get sober. And he’s since been attending Wake Monarch Academy, a high school for students recovering from substance use disorders.

Wake County and the North Carolina attorney general’s office held a roundtable discussion Tuesday afternoon to hear how the county should spend money gained from what is known as the National Opioid Settlement, with a focus on helping youth. Brigham was one of a few students who spoke during the community meeting.

Stein, along with other state attorneys general, reached a $26 billion settlement with three of the nation’s largest drug distributors. A majority of that funding in North Carolina is going to local governments.

“We made a choice early on that we wanted the lion’s share of those resources to go to counties, to local governments,” Stein said. “It is local governments who take the lead in responding to this crisis. Local governments operate the county jails. Local governments have (departments of social services). Local governments have public health departments. These are the folks who are on the ground for dealing with the crisis.”

Wake County, with help from the city of Raleigh and town of Cary, will be able to spend $36.1 million over the next 18 years to address the opioid epidemic.

In 2021, more than 200 people in Wake County died from drug overdoses, with three-fourths of those deaths related to opioids.

This is a chance to help “bend the curve” and address the upward trajectory of opioid deaths, said Wake County Commission Chair Sig Hutchinson.

“Many of you have been on the front lines of either understanding difficulties associated with this drug, or dealing with the people who are having trouble with this drug,” Hutchinson said to a small crowd of people from the nonprofit, medical and education communities.

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein addresses a community round table focused on how to spend Wake County’s opioid settlement money with an emphasis on youth services.
North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein addresses a community round table focused on how to spend Wake County’s opioid settlement money with an emphasis on youth services.

Wake County has four “buckets” for where the initial funding will go: opioid use disorder treatment, helping people navigate the health care system, early identification and intervention, and housing access and support.

Wake County should consider investing in more places for peers to gather and “feel normal,” Jack Brigham said.

“I started using when I was very young,” he said. “It’s always because I felt like I wasn’t like other people. I always felt alone and scared. And drugs were an outlet for that. If kids can realize that they’re not alone, and what they feel is normal, it can help a lot.”

His mother suggested that Wake County make sure its current programs work before launching others and focus on helping parents navigate a difficult and confusing system.

Rebecca Brigham said she’s faced the family stigma that comes from having a child who struggles with substance use.

“It’s really to just say ‘blame the parents,’” she said. “What’s really important is that we think about this as a mental health issue, a behavioral health issue, and not simply an issue where we would need to control and discipline our children. This comes from deeper emotional roots that need to be attended.”

Wake County could begin spending some of the money as soon as January.