MENTOR – Heroin and other deadly opioid drugs are increasingly turning more people in Lake County into addicts and taking their lives, regardless of their education and socioeconomic status.
That was the message of Kim Fraser, executive director of the Lake County Alcohol, Drug Addiction, and Mental Health Services (ADAMHS) Board during a Feb. 21 “A Crisis We Can't Ignore: The Opioid Epidemic In Our Own Backyard.”
Held at the Mentor School District's Paradigm Building, about 300 people attended the community forum. It was the first of several created to provide information, resources, and interactive discussion on how to curb the increasing use of heroin and opioids, also called opiates.
Drug addiction was first noticed in Lake County as an emerging problem in 2010 and has since mushroomed, affecting both the young people and adults, Fraser said.
“I think we'd all like to think that there's no way our kids could fall victim to this horrible scourge of an epidemic but, in reality, we know that Mentor is just as susceptible to this opiate epidemic as any other community in the state or the country,” she said.
This is why it is important to candidly discuss and learn about the problem and solutions to it, she added.
Among the forum speakers was Mentor Superintendent of Schools Matthew Miller.
“We know that drug abuse has no boundaries and seeps into all communities and all families,” he said. “We've experienced tragedies and deep loss right here in Mentor caused by powerful drug addiction.”
The Lake County Coroner's Office reported in the county there were 72 deaths from heroin, fentanyl or a combination of the two drugs, or other opioids in 2016. In comparison, 28 people died from those drugs in 2015 and 27 perished in 2014.
An age breakdown was unavailable.
Statewide, the increase in opioids is responsible for claiming the lives of 18 people weekly, according to Mentor Police Operations Commander Captain Kenneth Zbiegien, another speaker.
“Rural, suburban and urban areas all have experienced the effects of heroin,” he said.
The epidemic is a challenge to law enforcement agencies across the country, including Mentor police, because it presents “one of the more complex drug challenges that law enforcement has ever faced,” Zbiegien said.
In Mentor alone, there were five heroin overdoses the weekend of Feb. 18 to 19. One overdose victim died, he said.
Law enforcement is only one part of a comprehensive three-fold approach to fighting drug abuse and overdose deaths that includes community education and drug interdiction and treatment, Zbiegien said. The fight also involves partnership with many county social service, health and drug enforcement agencies, such as the ADAMHS Board and school districts, he added.
Locally, Mentor police have tried to be on the forefront of the efforts to reduce heroin overdose deaths, the captain said.
Two years ago, it became the first law enforcement agency Lake County to train and equip officers with Nasal Narcan, a prescription medicine used in emergencies for the treatment of heroin overdoses.
Increased use of Nasal Narcan from 2015 to 2016 is evidence of the increased use of heroin, he added. Yet, while trying reduce overdose deaths, Zbiegien said Mentor police also are pursuing severe punishment for drug dealers.
It recently became the first police department in Northeast Ohio to successfully prosecute a dealer for manslaughter in connection with supplying a victim who died of a heroin overdose, he added.
Some people become so hooked on heroin and other opiates that they cannot overcome their addiction, even when they have survived an overdose and a narrow brush with death, according to Mentor Fire Department paramedic and Public Education Specialist Jerry Craddock.
In his 32 years with the fire department, he said heroin has gone from “not being on the radar” to becoming the reason for frequent rescue squad calls.
Last December, for example, Mentor paramedics responded to an overdose every 1.7 days, he added.
The firefighter / paramedic recalled responding to 3 a.m. rescue call at a Mentor gas station, where he and his partner found an attractive 22-year-old woman unconsciousness from a heroin overdose.
“She looked no different than any kid you'll see in school or in any of our homes,” Craddock said.
The woman regained consciousness after being given Narcan by him.
While being transported to the Lake West Medical Center emergency room, Craddock said he tried to talk to her and advise her to get treatment, “because she had her entire life ahead of her.”
Her addiction was apparently too strong, however. While filling out his report in the emergency room, he watched the young woman yank an IV tube out of her arm, get up and walk out of the hospital.
“I won't be surprised if I might see her again,” Craddock said. “We can pick these people up off the floor all day long, but there's got to be education on the front end and rehabilitation, or else this sort of thing is going to continue happening.”
The speakers were followed by 13 breakout sessions. Each 40-minute session was created to address different aspects of opioid addiction and answer questions of concerned parents and other residents.
One of the most heavily attended involved the testimonies of four recovering addicts. Each described what is like to live as an addict, their treatment and how it worked for them, their difficulties during recovery and desire to remain to stay drug free and lead a productive life.
They only provided their first names; Dean, Leah, Amanda and Mike.
Each said they encountered fear of failure and rejection, but credited prayer and faith in God for giving them the reinforcement, courage and desire to free themselves from addiction.
“Now I'm a mother and a wife, and I'm here to help people escape this evil,” Leah said.
The next forum, “Hidden in Plain Sight,” is set for April 12 at 6:30 p.m. in the Mentor Fine Arts Center at Mentor High School.
Parents will be able to view a specially made interactive teenager's bedroom to learn where items indicative of risky and dangerous behavior, including drug use, can be hidden. Teenagers and children cannot attend due to the nature of the forum.