After a groundswell of media coverage in the past couple years, we have seen a decrease in the conversation around the opioid epidemic, especially as major pharmaceutical companies such as Purdue Pharma and Johnson & Johnson have been brought to court in major lawsuits over understating the potential harms and addictive characteristics of many prescription painkillers, such as OxyContin.
However, as the media turns to a new public health crisis, teen vaping, is the opioid epidemic on the decline? Have we “fixed” it? Far from it, unfortunately, and some states continue to see rates of overdose rise or “level off”, maintaining peak rates. According to the Virginia Department of Health’s opioid addiction indicators, the New River Valley, and in particular, Pulaski, performs far worse than other state localities.
In 2017, the last year for which prescription opioid overdose death data is publically available, Pulaski county had a mortality rate of 20.5%, more than double that of neighboring Montgomery County, 8.1%, and nearly four times the overall state rate of 5.9%. That year, Governor Ralph Northam visited the New River Valley after a staggering 26 overdose deaths, reiterating the urgency of responding to this epidemic, and reducing stigma around addiction, in order to encourage others to seek help. “Addiction doesn’t discriminate,” Northam said, at an event organized by New River Valley Community Services, the largest mental health and substance misuse treatment provider in the region.
While many fight the stigma associated with addiction, it still exists widely in our community, as does addiction itself. One group is trying to combat this crisis in Pulaski county. NRV Recovery, a small group of local advocates, are seeking to open a “Recovery House”, often referred to as a sober living house. For many in recovery, the transition back to daily life is arduous, and one of the most at risk times for relapse.
Sober living homes act as a “step down” from inpatient treatment, increasing an individual’s chances of maintaining their recovery. They can also reduce costs to the local community. Instead of being publically funded, residents pay for their room and board, contributing their income to the upkeep and management of the residence. Most recovery houses have a live-in manager who is responsible for operations, and possibly even programming for the homes’ residents to aid in their recovery. Residents are also expected to attend meetings such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and other support groups.
However, when it came time for the new Pulaski recovery house to be approved for a special use permit, it was denied at a September 9th meeting with the planning commission. Reactions from local residents, including those who would live in close proximity to the house, expressed strong concern and disapproval. According to Cory Haggerty, a member of NRV Recovery, one local resident went so far as to say that if the house was approved, she would no longer be able to let her children play outside. However, another attendee, a next door neighbor to the potential house, stated that “we have prostitutes and criminals and drug addicts walk past our house all the time”, but was still against the idea of a sober living home.
According to multiple members of NRV Recovery, there are many folks in Pulaski that do have neighbors suffering from addiction already. It appears the difference in building recovery housing would be the knowledge of a concentrated 7-10 individuals in the same home, although they would be actively in treatment. While these local residents represent the sentiments of many in Pulaski, the New River Valley, and the larger population in general, these attitudes ironically create barriers to reducing the “problem” they feel so strongly against. In hopes of changing minds and persisting through these barriers, members of NRV Recovery again submitted the special use permit at an October 1st meeting, and were again denied.
In the face of all this, it’s hard not to be frustrated with the push back. It is imperative that as a community, we become comfortable with confronting and treating addiction. Condemning those who are struggling does not eliminate, and in fact, exacerbates the epidemic and the pain that individuals with a substance use disorder experience. It is up to us to create safe spaces within our community to encourage individuals to seek help and create room for their treatment to succeed. Simply by looking at the overdose data, it’s clear that combatting the stigma associated with addiction is a life and death matter for the New River Valley.