Deaths by heroin overdose rose by 200 percent in Mississippi from 2013 to 2016, according to a panel of experts at Tuesday night’s town hall meeting on opioid abuse.
The meeting, held at the Oxford Conference Center, focused on the impact of opioids and opioid addiction, including prescription drugs, in the community.
“This isn’t something law enforcement can solve,” Oxford Police Chief Joey East told the crowd. “It’s a national epidemic. We have to get together as a community to solve it.”
Heroin addiction is often rooted in prescription drug abuse, the panelists said, and many don’t recognize the risk. In Lafayette County last year, 34,566 opioid prescriptions, or 1.1 prescriptions per person, were written.
Lt. John Harless of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics noted there were more than 52,000 deaths from accidental drug overdose in the U.S. in 2015.
“That’s about the size of Hattiesburg,” Harless said, adding that more than 37,000 of those fatal overdoses were attributed to opioids. Worse, many deaths by overdose go unreported, Harless said, suggesting the problem is bigger than statistics indicate.
“We’re going to continue to lose people on a daily and weekly basis,” said John Dowdy, director of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics. “And I think it’s extremely important and very fitting that we have this town hall meeting here in Oxford, because I’m going to tell you something: This stigma of not wanting to acknowledge that you have a problem on this campus has got to stop. I can tell you, from an enforcement standpoint, I can have 25 guys working dope on the University of Mississippi campus, and they’d work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and still wouldn’t be able to keep up with the dope that’s coming into the university.”
College towns like Starkville and Hattiesburg face a similar problem, Dowdy said.
“We have to get a (sense of) urgency about this because people are dying.”
Ann Rodio, a project director with the Mississippi Department of Health, warned that labeling and stigmatizing drug addiction prevents addicts from seeking help.
“It’s a mental disease that we need to address,” Rodio said. “It doesn’t mean they’re immoral or bad people. It’s just something they use to cope with an issue, and now what used to be their solution is now their problem.”
“The silence in our community is costing lives,” Rodio added. “When we’re all sitting around whispering about that person in the family, we think, ‘I don’t want to say anything. I think they’re taking too many pills, but I don’t want to hurt their feelings. I don’t want to cause a fight.’ The truth is, we’re not saving their feelings; we just don’t want to deal with the uncomfortable feeling we’re going to have bringing up the conversation. I know it sounds cruel, but that’s one of the most self-centered actions we can take – not loving someone enough to risk being brave and bold enough to say what we see. Love is an action. If you care about someone, you will sit down and have a non-confrontational, compassionate loving talk with them and help them get into treatment.”
Rick Hynum is editor-in-chief at HottyToddy.com.
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