By September 10, 2017 Read More →

Opinion: We are at risk of losing an entire generation to drugs

By Samantha Perry

Editor, The Bluefield Daily Telegraph

Is a society defined by how it lives, or how it dies? Are the good deeds of hard-working people who conquered a hill-heavy, geographically treacherous terrain overshadowed by those who now choose to meet their maker via a needle in the arm or a snort to the nose?

Samantha Perry, editor, Bluefield Daily Telegraph

Are we culturally blended to the steadfast, good-hearted, strong-willed coal miners and other loyal employees of the past, or the so-called “pillbillies” of today?

It’s decision time.

•••

I’ve spent days engrossed in interviews with officials, public servants and family members of those affected by the opioid crisis in southern West Virginia. My two-part series focusing on the growing heroin epidemic and increased number of overdose deaths was published last week.

Days later, I am still experiencing the mental hangover.

I realize that while attuned to the drug problem in our region, I have also had my head in the sand.

We report on shootings, stabbings and murders every month, every week and, at times, every day.

“It’s drug-related,” I say. A casual shrug of the shoulders indicates no real worries.

A home invasion with injuries comes across the police scanner.

“Druggies?” I ask.

The reporter working the story gives me an affirmative nod.

Just another day in the office.

•••

I, like many, have become immune to the drug problem. There is so much crime, so much chaos, I filter the tragedy.

Last week I opened my eyes.

I learn that the drug epidemic in southern West Virginia has morphed into a potential catastrophic health situation, with Mercer and surrounding counties now being labeled at risk for an HIV outbreak.

Mercer, McDowell and Wyoming counties are three counties of 220 across the nation that are susceptible to an HIV outbreak.

A 2016 report by the Centers for Disease Control listed Wyoming as No. 16.

“It is a community changing event,” Mercer County Commissioner and Community Connections head Greg Puckett says. “It will kill everything in a community.”

Drug addiction “affects the family, affects the community … it affects everybody,” Tina Borich, chief clinical officer at Southern Highlands, tells me during a Drug Overdose Awareness event held at the center. “Some people still have a stereotypical image of an addict. But it’s across the board, it’s all walks of life.”

•••

“We have to stop this,” says Matt Huffman, director of the Legends Treatment Center. Matt works with recovering addicts from across West Virginia.

“We have to get in quicker to avoid the health care costs, he says. “It’s staggering. One of my biggest concerns, is that we, as a community, need to get in front of our drug problem and not behind it.

“We need more treatment, but we also need to start using the treatment we have,” Huffman says. “In Mercer County, I can not throw a stone without hitting someone impacted by the drug problem … Until we get in front of this epidemic, we’re going to keep losing our brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers and children.”

•••

I hug a mom who has lost her daughter to an injection of heroin and rat poison. Tears fill both our eyes. In my 20-plus years in the business, it’s among the most poignant of interviews I have experienced.

The words “I’m sorry” seem trite in the face of such overwhelming heartbreak.

Minutes later I encounter a pretty, petite brunette. After introductions, she tells me how she overdosed the month before.

I am shocked. She is not.

The brunette is now in treatment. It’s all good, she tells me.

All the while we are standing in front of a rescue squad display explaining how an overdose treatment drug works.

•••

We are in a crisis situation. The drug epidemic in southern West Virginia is at risk of exterminating an entire generation.

Lives are being lost, families maimed. Children are growing up with zombie parents — or no parents at all. It’s time we acknowledge the catastrophic state of our culture, and strive to move forward in a united state.

It is, without a doubt, decision time.

Samantha Perry is editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at sperry@bdtonline.com. Follow her @BDTPerry.

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