It’s a simple, yet powerful, beginning. Mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters—all simply saying the names of family members who have died from a drug overdose.
“Last year was just a god-awful year for overdoses. We had 1,297 Kentuckians at last count in 2015 that died a totally preventable death,” Van Ingram, the executive director for the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy, says in the opening of the KET documentary, “Journey to Recovery: Inside Opioid Addiction.”
In fact, a new report from Ingram’s office released in June shows the number of drug overdose deaths in Kentucky in 2016—1,404—set a new high because of the rising abuse of heroin and the painkiller fentanyl.
The documentary is part of an initiative aimed at elevating awareness of the complex issues surrounding opioid addiction in Kentucky, which has the third-highest drug overdose death rate in the United States. Within the initiative, “Inside Opioid Addiction,” KET has produced more than 25 broadcast programs examining all aspects of the epidemic.
Julie Schmidt, senior director of external affairs at KET, said the effort to shed light on the opioid epidemic began as a result of the station’s efforts to find issues that resonate with Kentuckians. Staff conducted “listening tours” around the state to learn what issues were important to people in the communities they visited. After a while, communities began opening up about the drug abuse problem, Schmidt said.
So producers at KET trained their focus on the drug problem—both prescription drug abuse and heroin addiction. “We didn’t want to just talk about the problems, but to really showcase and highlight solutions,” said Schmidt.
KET producers Justin Allen and Laura Krueger will share insights and perspectives as journalists covering the crisis during the KMA Annual Meeting, Aug. 26, at the Hyatt in downtown Louisville. The producers will discuss medication assisted treatment based on their reporting on the opioid crisis over the course of a year and show clips from the “Journey to Recovery” documentary.
The personal stories told through the documentary and other programs add an element that helps to enhance the understanding of the epidemic and a desire to develop solutions, Schmidt said.
“The fact that an addict having to fight the battle of addiction would be open and come to talk about it,” she said, “we want to honor that and we think it’s important not to stigmatize the issue but to look for solid solutions.”
Allen and Krueger be joined by KET producer Renee Shaw, Scott Hesseltine, vice president of addiction services at Centerstone, formerly Seven Counties Services, and Allen Brenzel, M.D., medical/clinical director at the Kentucky Department for Behavioral Health and Developmental and Intellectual Disabilities for a presentation during the KMA Meet the Mandates on Aug. 25.
“This particular epidemic knows no boundaries,” said Schmidt. “It doesn’t care what ZIP code you live in; it really is affecting all parts of our commonwealth.”
According to the Office of Drug Control Policy, the total number of people—5,821—who died from drug overdose from 2012 through 2016 was more than 2,000 higher than the number of people who died from highway fatalities.
“Many different organizations are trying to work together to find solutions,” Schmidt said. “It just that the number of people who are in crisis has been higher than the resources.”
The problem is not a new one; it’s been going on for several years, Schmidt said. The awareness is heightened, she said, because “it has touched more people’s lives.”
Schmidt said some physicians may not have to face the scourge or be in an area where the opioid crisis has hit harder. “It affects all of us as a community because we are all interconnected,” she said.