According to an August speech by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, 142 Americans die every day from a drug overdose.
Christie, who chairs President Donald Trump’s opioid commission, likened the crisis to experiencing something on the scale of a Sept. 11, 2001, attack every 3 weeks.
On Monday, the 16th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, nonprofit community group Franklin Tomorrow hosted a panel discussion on the opioid epidemic and its effects on Williamson County.
“In Franklin, you have a little bit more of the prescription abuse because the money is here,” said panelist and Franklin Police Detective Robert Dilworth. “Williamson County is wealthy, so money has never really been an issue for a lot of people.”
But Dilworth said that the type of opioid favored by users is starting to shift slightly from prescription drugs, like oxycodone, to street drugs, like heroin. “We’ve had heroin deaths here, recently,” Dilworth said, noting that heroin laced with the end-stage cancer drug fentanyl is on the rise. “The more pills people take, the higher the high they need, and they start turning to heroin.”
Cindy Blom, a certified addiction and recovery coach, could relate to this pattern; her son Eric died of a heroin overdose three years ago.
Eric Blom struggled with opioid addiction from his teenage years onward, Blom said, shifting between periods of sobriety and periods of serious addiction and homelessness. Eric was an artist who graduated from Middle Tennessee State University with a degree in graphic design.
Blom mentioned her son’s artwork displayed next to the table at which she sat inside the City Hall training room. “Who he was when he was addicted, that wasn’t really him,” she said.
“Eric was grieving before he died,” Blom said, pointing out one particular piece: a man with no discernible features reaching out toward his heart as it falls from his chest in a ribbon of blood.
“He didn’t take the pills to be high. He took the pills because of the trauma that was driving it,” she continued. “If we don’t get to those underlying, core reasons, we will be putting people in rehab over and over and over again,” she said of the continuous battle behind addiction.
Panel members discussed what an opioid is, why addiction happens, how to prevent addiction, and what can be done to rehabilitate those who are addicted.
For those who struggle with addiction, panelists emphasized that the county has many layers of support systems.
“The ones who get arrested are the lucky ones,” Dilworth said, pointing to county-wide resources for those who become incarcerated. “It’s not a stigma of getting arrested. Once you get arrested, we can offer you help in the court system.”
“Our court system here in Williamson County is working,” said panelist Anthony Owens, the owner and operator of Educare Counseling Center. “It’s doing what it can to change lives.”
On the intervention end, Dilworth said every officer in the Franklin Police department has been issued a can of Narcan, an inhaled opiate-blocker, which can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.
Dr. Starling Evins, chief medical officer of the Williamson County Medical Center, said the county has made strides to combat the opioid epidemic over the past two years; he referenced Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Dr. John Dreyzehner’s three-pronged crackdown.
Evins said Dreyzehner’s program involved curtailing prescription of narcotic drugs in excess of ten at a time in cases of acute injury, checking a narcotics database before writing a prescription to see if the patient had received narcotics from another physician, and shutting down pain clinics, known as “pill mills.”
“Physicians are directly responsible for putting the prescription drugs out there,” Evins said. “The reason that heroin is back on the streets in larger numbers, is because the prescription drugs are down.”
Evins said the education on addiction for medical practitioners is still ongoing, but that the most important takeaway the nature of addiction: “It is a disease, and there is help to that disease.”
In the future, the panelists agreed that breaking the stigma of speaking about addiction is a stepping stone toward community recovery.
“The prevention, before you even get to juvenile prevention, is to call for the community and the churches to help,” Blom, who works in counseling at Christ Community Church, said. “Most people aren’t talking about that there, because there’s so much shame around it,” she continued. “We have to just really be able to get open about what’s driving it.”
FrankTalks is a discussion series on issues that affect the community of Franklin. Hosted by Franklin Tomorrow, the free series continues on the second Monday of each month.