Student government associations from nearly 20 university and state colleges across Arkansas joined together this past week, working together to bring awareness to the issues around substance abuse.

The March 11-15 statewide initiative titled, “Save AR Students: End Substance Abuse,” kicked off Monday during a news conference at the Association for Arkansas Counties. The event was organized by SGA members and welcomed speakers including Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Arkansas Drug Director Kirk Lane, Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge and the Natural State Recovery Centers Chief Executive Officer Christopher Dickie.

Faulkner County’s Kimberly Ashley-Pauley, the mother of Joshua Ashley-Pauley and University of Central Arkansas staff member, was also present.

Her son, she told those present, was with friends mixing prescription drugs when he passed out but no one placed an emergency call. Joshua died of the overdose on that May 2014 day.

"It is really sad to me that this could've been prevented," Kimberly said. "I will never know whether or not if Josh had gotten to a hospital in time he would've lived or not."

After his death, the Joshua Ashley-Pauley Act, sponsored by Sen. Jason Rapert, was passed in 2015 by the Arkansas Legislature, which provides immunity — won’t be arrested, charged or prosecuted for possession of a controlled substance — for seeking medical assistance during a drug overdose and for "other purposes."

Director Kirk Lane told attendees those between 18-22 years of age are at the highest risk for opioid abuse, and oftentimes, what starts out as recreational use, commonly leads to addiction and then, onto other drugs like heroin and fentanyl.

“The result is permanent,” he said. “Once addicted to opioids, the user finds himself in a lifelong battle that has three remedies: recovery, further addiction or death. It is so important that you stand today to be the difference. Quite simply, speak up about drugs. Don't be afraid to intervene in your friend's drug use."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Arkansas ranks second in the nation in opioid prescribing rates — 105.4 percent per 100 people.

"This epidemic is overwhelming for our state [and] absolutely [is] something that we must combat [and]it's going to take an above-all approach," Rutledge said. "This challenge of substance abuse, particularly prescription drug abuse, [doesn't] care if you're rich or poor, it doesn't care what neighborhood you grew up in, it doesn't care if you're black, white, Hispanic [or] Asian.”

She said regardless of who someone is or where they came from, substance abuse can affect anyone and their families.

“It’s no secret that substance use is drastically affecting the state of Arkansas,” Trevor Villines, a University of Arkansas, Fayetteville student and Save AR Students 2019 Event Director, said. “Substance abuse has no borders. It affects people of different gender, race and religion. If we’re going to do something about it, the time is now. It’s up to us to Save AR State, Save AR Future, but more importantly Save AR Students.”

Joshua Ellinger-Lucero, the UCA SGA president, told the Log Cabin Democrat that the Conway college joined Villines’s group and members of the Arkansas State University’s government association to pull off the event.

“The event was a huge success with approximately 250 students, stakeholders and university administrators in attendance,” he said. “It was inspiring to see so many people from a variety of institutions come out and support this initiative."

He said all that showed, especially the state’s leaders, made a big impact and got the impression from their attendance, they all recognize that substance abuse is a serious issues across the Arkansas, “pleased at their willingness” to work with the different campus associations to make the week happen.

Outside of this one event, the UCA SGA president said Hutchinson signed a proclamation declaring the week Save AR Students Substance Abuse Awareness Week, the legislation passed a resolution in support of it and each institution hosted various activities to bring awareness to the individual campuses.

“This week is so important because it provides an additional opportunity to educate and inform not only students, but faculty and staff at each of our institutions about the dangers and risks associated with substance abuse,” Ellinger-Lucero. “For UCA, this week is also important because we know the tragedy that follows when a student dies because of substance abuse and overdose. Having Kimberly Ashley-Pauley at the kickoff event Monday, and hearing her story about her son Joshua, provided real meaning behind the importance of this week.”

He said the initiative was meant to educate and inform people about the issue, but also to ensure students understand the resources that are available to them so future tragedy can be prevented.

At UCA, the SGA brought in the Arkansas Department of Health on Tuesday, Dose of Reality — which talks about the effect and impact across the state regarding opioids — on Wednesday and set up a booth to hand out informational flyers, T-Shirts, buttons and allow students to sign the Save AR Students banner on Thursday in the student center.

“Students have been extremely responsive to the events this week,” Eddinger-Lucero said. “I think with it being the first ever statewide substance abuse awareness week, our response from students has been phenomenal.”

One of the ways they were able to have conversations, he said, was during the tabling event.

“Our SGA senators asked everyone that came up to the table if they knew what the Joshua Ashley-Pauley Act was,” Eddinger-Lucero said. "We were surprised to hear that many students did not what [it] was, but we had informational flyers to hand out to them about the act, as well as flyers with statistics on substance abuse in Arkansas.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

In 2017, 400 drug overdose deaths were reported by the Arkansas Drug Directors office.
Of the 75 Arkansas Counties, 66 had prescribing rates higher than the national average in 2016.
Roughly 21 to 29 percent of patients prescribed opioids for chronic pain, misuse them, 8 to 12 percent develop a dependency and 4 to 6 percent transition to heroin.
It’s estimated that 2 million people in the U.S. have a substance use disorder related to prescription opioid pain.

“Unfortunately, substance abuse is a real crisis across the state,” Eddinger-Lucero said. “These numbers were shocking and I am so grateful to work with and know amazing student leaders and university administrators across our state that are willing to work together to combat this crisis.”

During the week, the UCA SGA president said he was most impacted through the many conversations he was able to have with students, which led him to understand more about how much substance abuse has impacted their lives and the lives of ones they know.

“Above all else, Save AR Students [was] about educating students and I firmly believe we have accomplished that goal this week,” Eddinger-Lucero said. “If any of the information we have provided to students impacts one life, then we’ve accomplished what we set out to do.”

Arkansas Institutions that participated in Save AR Students 2019 include: University of Arkansas- Fayetteville, Arkansas State University, Arkansas Tech University, University of Central Arkansas, Henderson State University, Southern Arkansas University, University of Arkansas- Fort Smith, University of Arkansas-Little Rock, University of Arkansas-Monticello, University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, ASU-Mountain Home, University of Arkansas-Cossatot Community College, East Arkansas Community College, Northwest Arkansas Community College, University of Arkansas-Phillips Community College, University of Arkansas Community College at Batesville, University of Arkansas Community College at Hope, University of Arkansas at Rich Mountain, and University of Arkansas Pulaski Technical College.