As our nation continues to seek solutions to the prescription drug abuse epidemic, Tennessee is disproportionately shouldering the effects of this rampant problem. Our state has the second-highest opioid prescribing rate in the nation, and, consequently, more than 69,000 Tennesseans struggle with addiction. Tragically, this number includes pregnant women, giving rise to alarming rates of babies born suffering from withdrawal symptoms, known as Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS).
According to the Tennessee Department of Health (TDH) in 2015, 986 babies were born drug dependent. Of those babies, 116 were from Knox County and were diagnosed with NAS. Currently, it costs an estimated $67,000 to stabilize one TennCare newborn baby withdrawing from in utero drug exposure. To put this in perspective, that is 15 times more than the cost of a healthy birth, estimated at $4,200. In 2014 alone, NAS cost the state more than $51 million (TDH). Data shows that infants born with NAS are 18% more likely to be in child protective custody at some point in their first year of life compared to other TennCare infants at 1% . Not only is the economic impact substantial, but the consequences of opiate addiction for new mothers and their infants are devastating.
The withdrawal process, while hard for adults, is horrific for a NAS baby. They are inconsolable, writhing in pain from sensitivity to light, sound, touch and gastrointestinal cramps. It would be easy to condemn these women for the suffering of their children, but it is imperative that we approach addiction for what it is – a chronic, relapsing disease that requires comprehensive, collaborative treatment.
Too many mothers, especially in East Tennessee – the state’s epicenter for opioid abuse – are falling through the cracks. While we have some treatment facilities that will work with pregnant women, space is very limited, and no one is attempting to reach this demographic the way we intend to. Recently MDC was award Phase II from the Trinity Foundation. With the help of these funds, MDC’s mentoring program will be able walk beside these mothers and provide them the social, emotional and educational support they so desperately need.
As a pregnant, drug-addicted mother, these women are among our community’s most vulnerable. They are at-risk of persecution, judgement and shame. The addicted mothers of these babies are in need of a helping hand to guide them through the first year of life. Metro Drug Coalition (MDC) recognizes a gap in resources to support these mothers and babies. MDC has developed a comprehensive one-on-one mentoring program for first time mothers (mentees) in addiction treatment and/or recovery. The mentees will be matched with other mothers, (mentors) who are stable in their recovery journey, to help them navigate the challenges of maintaining sobriety while parenting a NAS baby. Mentors will commit to a minimum monthly contact with their mentee for a one-year period. The advisory board will consist of Renaissance Preferred Prenatal Outcomes Network, Susannah’s House and Helen Ross McNabb Center’s Great Starts Program. They will provide assistance with training, referrals and evaluation for the Hands of Hope program. MDC’s goal at the end of the commitment period: mentees will have maintained sobriety, created a healthy home environment for their family and be an engaged mother.