As the opioid epidemic sweeps the nation, drug prevention leaders in Knox County are encouraging parents to start the conversation about drugs early.

Karen Pershing, executive director of the Metro Drug Coalition, said parents need to begin those conversations with their kids even as early as preschool by talking about living a healthy lifestyle.

"You start talking about foods they're eating, going out and exercising and playing, and how important it is to brush your teeth," Pershing said.

These conversations will need to evolve as a child grows, Pershing said, into eventually talking about the tougher issues of tobacco, alcohol and drugs.


When a child is able to start reading, Pershing said let children read the medication labels and directions if they get sick. She also encourages parents to use children's questions as teachable moments.

"If you wait till they're adolescents, teenagers, you may have missed the boat with your child," Pershing said, "so you need to talk at a younger age."

According to a survey by the Metro Drug Coalition, Knox County Schools and the Knox County Health Department, Pershing said less than one-third of parents in Knox County are talking to their children about alcohol and drugs.

The 2017 Knox County Youth Risk Behavior Survey says that one out of four Knox County high schools students reported they had at least one drink of alcohol during the past 30 days, and one out of five high school students reported using marijuana.

MORE: 35 high school students admit to cocaine use in Knox Co. Health Department survey

Knox County Schools recently hosted a series of forums on the opioid epidemic to inform students and parents. A documentary called "Chasing the Dragon" was shown to highlight the issues associated with addiction.

Terry Hill, Knox County Board of Education representative for district six, said she attended one of the forums at Bearden High School with her grandchildren in mind.

"I attended it for many selfish reasons because I have grandchildren, two middle school age, and trying to assess whether I thought, you know, if this was appropriate for them," Hill said.

Hill said she will be taking her grandchildren to a showing of "Chasing the Dragon" at Hardin Valley Academy on Nov. 9 because she thinks it's a good teaching tool.

"I do think it's very appropriate, very timely, and it's an attention getter," Hill said. "And sometimes in this day and age, that's what our kids need to see."

Kinley Koontz, the student representative on the Knox County Board of Education, said she hears other kids in school talk about alcohol and marijuana.

She said she doesn't feel tempted to by those because of the values her parents taught her.

"Those things are not something that lead you down a path to success," Koontz said, "and I think that's really important for students to ask themselves, 'What am I going to do everyday to make myself a better person?'"

Pershing said it may not be easy to talk to teenagers about the tougher issues.

"They may roll their eyes, you know, kids are all good about doing that," she added.

But for high-achieving students like Koontz, she said her parents are the ones that made the difference in her life.

"I believe that my parents are the biggest credit to be given for my success," she said.