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Record number of overdose deaths during pandemic spurs call for help

Posted at 1:01 PM, Aug 11, 2021

RICHMOND, Va. — Jennifer Campbell has faced loss, addiction, and domestic abuse.

“It just took being in the wrong place at the wrong time, at a weak moment, and I used again, and from the next six months was the deepest, darkest hell I've ever known,” Campbell said.

Campbell has even been on the brink of death.

“He beat me so badly, he put me in a body bag in a river and I was unconscious, but I kept waking up," Campbell said. "I don't know if the cold water, but I kept waking up and I try to fight my way out of a body bag. And someone pulled up into these woods, by the grace of God, and he saw them. So he came and got me out of the river and took me back to the house. So God saved me once again.”

It wasn’t until she was arrested for drug distribution that she finally got away from that man. She says she believes God used the time she served behind bars as an opportunity to press the reset button.

After jail, Campbell went to a long-term residential facility called the Mercy House. She’s now been sober for four years. Rosalinda Rivera is the executive director of Mercy House.

“Our home represents probably about 90% of women that have been through sexual abuse, through some kind of physical abuse," Rivera said. "They are victims of violence, domestic violence, who have many of them have turned to addiction to find a way of an escape.”

Rivera says the women go through a series of family classes, job-related training, and relapse prevention. She says a recent study done by the University of Maryland shows 65% of the women who finish the program never go back to their addiction.

“For the 50 years that we've been doing this program, we have seen that the core issue is a lack of hope.”

As the U.S. opioid crisis continues to get worse, Rivera says it was heartbreaking to turn ladies away at the beginning of the pandemic.

“Once we realized that we could do testing and let people in the door, the phones, well, the phones never stop ringing,” Campbell said.

Campbell says there are many reasons people facing addiction have been struggling more throughout the pandemic.

“Probably they lost their jobs and they were struggling financially," Campbell said. "Maybe someone in their family was suffering from COVID-19 and maybe someone in their family passed away due to it. And I mean, that just brings on so many different aspects of grief. And some people don't know any way to deal with that other than to run to drugs.”

According to the CDC, a record 93,000 people died from a drug overdose in 2020.

Dr. Nora Volkow is the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health. She says the opioid crisis has basically been put on the backburner during the pandemic.

“The number of people that have died from opioids significantly rose during the pandemic year of 2020," Dr. Volkow said. "The estimate is that there was at least a 30% increase from 2019. And so this is the largest increase in overdose deaths that we have ever recorded.”

She says the health care system was saturated because of COVID-19 and there’s been a rise in more dangerous drugs like fentanyl.

“The people that are mostly affected are between 24 and 54 years of age, so they are at the prime of their lives,” Dr. Volkow said.

In order to make these numbers go down, Dr. Volkow says we need to end the stigmas surrounding addiction so people aren’t ashamed to seek medical help. She also would like to see an expansion of access to naloxone – a medication that rapidly reverses an opioid overdose.

Places like the Mercy House help these women to view themselves in a more positive light giving them the chance to start a new chapter.

“It's a battle that they're going to deal with the rest of their life, and so if they plug in a community that's thriving, if you get plugged and if they have purpose, so many people are just looking for a purpose," Rivera said. "And when they find purpose, that is what kind of separates them and helps them stay on the path to recovery.”