What would be the public outcry if a Boeing 737 airliner crashed every other day for a year?
“If that happened we’d be screaming ‘We need to do more! We need to do more!’’ according to Dr. Rick Johansen, a pediatrician, medical director of the Berrien County Health Department and the county’s medical examiner.
But that’s the equivalent of the death toll from drug overdoses, with 60,000 people succumbing last year, Johansen said recently as part of a panel discussion on WNIT public television’s “Politically Speaking.”
“That’s the magnitude of the problem,” Johansen told host Elizabeth Bennion.
He was joined on the program by Lt. Melinda Logan of the Niles post of the Michigan State Police, and Kerri Teachout, substance abuse prevention with the county health department (an extended version of the discussion is at www.wnit.org/politicallyspeaking). The appearance was arranged through Gillian Conrad, communications manager for the health department.
The panelists outlined Berrien County’s multi-pronged approach to fighting opioid addiction, including prescription pain pills and heroin.
“We have an epidemic in every community” across the United States, Johansen said, with 20 million people addicted to opioids.
Michigan ranks 17th in the nation in its rate of addiction, and has twice the rate as Indiana, according to Johansen, whose job as medical examiner includes investigating suspicious deaths.
Berrien County had 34 overdose deaths each of the last three years, mostly from heroin, with more fatalities being seen from combinations of drugs such as fentanyl.
The crisis was sparked in the 1990s as doctors, desperate to treat chronic pain, prescribed drugs such as Oxycontin that pharmaceutical companies marketed as non-addictive, Johansen explained.
Instead, they proved to be highly addictive, hooking not only those who obtained the prescriptions but “drug seekers” who picked up unused pills from the family medicine cabinet.
As physicians became aware of the problem and the pill supply was reduced, addicts turned to heroin “which is more accessible and a lot cheaper,” Logan said. This led to even more overdose deaths.
Teachout said that public awareness in Berrien County has been heightened by the formation of the Voice.Change. Hope Alliance, started in 2015 by resident Carol Stockman, whose grandson died of a heroin overdose.
“She put a call to action out there,” Teachout said. “She didn’t want any other families to go through that trauma.”
The voice is that of the parents who have experienced addiction in their families, Teachout explained on the program. Change is altering the thinking about addiction and reducing the stigma, and hope means “we know there’s hope for recovery.”
Voice.Change.Hope has been able to partner with Lakeland Health, the Berrien County Sheriff’s Department, Michigan State Police, Harbortown treatment center, Families Against Narcotics, and the county health department.
The health department is supporting a grant request from the Voice.Change.Hope Alliance for $75,000 that it wants to use for more community outreach.
The alliance pushed for a seminar with Lakeland physicians on the subject of opioid addiction. As a result, the number of opioid prescriptions being written in the emergency department has been reduced by almost 40 percent, and the number prescribed by primary physicians has dropped by 20 percent, Johansen said. Doctors are keeping closer track of those who use the pills, he said.
Drop boxes have collected 1,800 pounds of unused meds, Teachout said. She also discussed the Good Samaritan Law spearheaded by state Rep. Al Pscholka, that shields persons who report an overdose to 911 from drug charges.
Local law enforcement officials are using Narcan to revive overdose victims. Logan said that some substances are becoming so lethal that even a few grains can affect an officer, and some departments have used Narcan to save the lives of their own people who were exposed.
Logan said that Michigan State Police has adopted the Angel Program, in which any addict can walk into a post and ask for treatment. State police at the Niles post will undergo training in the program this month.
“Throwing someone in jail doesn’t fix the addiction,” Logan said.
Teachout works with students in several school districts, from fifth grade up to high school, as well as community groups.
Johansen said it is important to talk to kids about drugs as early as possible. He noted that 90 percent of adult addicts began using substances as teenagers.
He added that primary prevention begins at home by setting a good example.
Contact: jmatuszak@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak