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“The best way to deal with this silent epidemic,” says Dr. Marc Mentel, medical director for the Community Physician Group at Community Medical Center, “is public awareness.”

A week of community events is shining a spotlight on what area leaders called an epidemic of prescription drug abuse and misuse.

Last year alone, more than 300 Montanans died from prescription drug misuse, Mayor John Engen said during a panel discussion on the topic Tuesday.

Eleven percent of Missoula youth report using a prescription painkiller without a doctor’s permission, and the most common source of prescription drugs is a family member, Engen added.

“That’s fairly stunning and I believe ought to get our attention,” he said.

Engen and several other panelists spoke about prescription drug issues during the panel discussion organized by Missoula Underage Substance Abuse Prevention.

MUSAP, the Missoula Forum for Children and Youth and other sponsors are behind several events this week as part of prescription drug misuse awareness week. A Prescription for Prevention summit will be held Wednesday, with 140 people registered to attend.

Ultimately, the events will help highlight community efforts and collaboration, encourage parents to talk with kids, and educate people about what misuse is and how to properly dispose of unused prescription medications, said Brandee Tyree, who coordinates MUSAP.

One of the events is the Safeguard our Kids, Safeguard our Prescriptions community conversation from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday at the City Life Community Center, 1515 Fairview Ave. Families can arrive early to tour the “hidden in plain sight” mock teenage bedroom display and to share their concerns and solutions, Tyree said.

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Prescription drugs make their way into communities after doctors prescribe them, said Dr. Marc Mentel, founder of the Safe Prescriber Program and a physician at Community Medical Center.

Enough opiates are prescribed each year for every American older than age 18 to have a month’s worth of medication at 5 milligrams every four hours, Martel said. “That’s a lot of medication.”

Doctors can’t solve the issues on their own by not prescribing medications, though, Mentel said, adding that it takes a concerted community effort and awareness about the issue to combat it.

Conversations with kids have to start early and be held often, said Andy Duran, executive director for Linking Efforts Against Drugs in Chicago.

Americans are conditioned to self-diagnose and ask doctors for prescription drugs, and kids don’t necessarily connect the similarities between the makeup of prescription drugs and narcotics, Duran said.

Have rules about taking prescription drugs, he suggested. Also, talk with kids about other options for treating ailments before handing them medication. And be clear about what a medication is and why it’s being taken.

If you’re taking a prescription drug intentionally to get high, if it’s not yours or if you’re using it for a reason other than it was prescribed, don’t, Duran said.

Instead of hanging onto unused prescriptions, dispose of them, but don’t flush them down the toilet. Water treatment systems aren’t equipped to filter the chemicals and they turn up in lakes, rivers, groundwater and other water sources, making prescription drugs an environmental as well as health issue, said Ellie Rial, the Clark Fork Coalition’s learning coordinator.

People with unused medication can take it to the 24-hour dropbox at the Missoula Police Department. Another option is the upcoming National Drug Take Back Day when people can drop off unused medications from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, April 26, at the Southgate Mall.

For tips on how to talk to your kids about prescription drugs and local resources, visit missoulaforum.org.

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Reporter Alice Miller can be reached at 523-5251 or at alice.miller@missoulian.com.

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