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'All of this is preventable' | New initiative identifies, treats addiction risk factors in kids

As overdose deaths set records in the Knoxville area, advocates are focusing on targeted prevention in kids.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn — Pediatric doctors regularly screen for a number of health problems like high blood pressure, diabetes and mental health.

Metro Drug Coalition wants to add risk factors for addiction to that list.

"In looking at what drives a lot of our substance use disorders, we see a lot of folks with backgrounds with a lot of childhood trauma," said Karen Pershing, executive director of the Metro Drug Coalition. "What we want to do is break those cycles and break them now and break them early."

That's why the organization is launching a new initiative to screen for Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), beginning with Shults Pediatrics and then expanding across Summit Medical Group.

"We know that long-term, kids who grow up in a toxic stress environment, it changes their brain and then it adversely affects their disease processes later in life," said Dr. Eric Penniman, executive medical director for Summit Medical Group. "Maybe they don't have food on the table at night and we can connect them with the food pantry. Maybe there's some social situations." 

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Summit Medical is working to ensure resources are in place to help children overcome or minimize any risk factors they identify. 

Dr. Penniman said that will include a trauma-informed therapist.

"This is really identifying those kids that may end up being high risk for drugs or other risky types of behaviors," he said. "Then, it's trying to intervene and trying to help them get resources for the families."

Pershing said she's hopeful this will expand to other pediatric practices across the region so they can break cycles of addiction early.

"All of this is preventable, but we've got to start early," she said. "That's really what's important about this initiative is that we're starting as early as possible."

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