Inside a second floor classroom of Harris Hall, VCU political science professor Eric King delivered a lecture to his dozens of POLI 343 “Black Political Thought” students.
On this day in early September, King scribbled in black marker the Latin words “dominus,” meaning master, or owner, and “potens,” meaning potential or powerful, across the whiteboard at the front of the room.
Both words, he said, amount to different forms of – or threats to – power.
“For example, addiction’s only master is itself,” King said. “It eats away at trust, and trust is what holds relationships, and communities, together. That power is what tears apart civil society.”
Most of King’s students blinked back at him, vaguely aware of the wisdom their professor just imparted upon the group — but for others, King’s statements hit harder, and more personally. A girl blinked back tears.
“Some of you know what I’m talking about,” King said to the class, and a smattering of heads nodded, just slightly, in acknowledgement.
King’s prescriptive sentiment was not extreme. For some students sitting in class, the realities of addiction plaguing communities is not new – but in the last decade, one substance has claimed the national spotlight more than any other.
Prescription pain medications claimed more than 4,000 Virginians’ lives, while heroin took nearly 1,400 from 2007 to 2015, according to the Virginia Department of Health’s annual report. Opioid overdoses – nearly 880 total – accounted for more than 90 percent of the state’s drug deaths last year.
“Richmond is on track to experience more than twice the number of heroin-related overdoses this year as compared to last year,” said Richmond Police Capt. Michael Zohab in a statement announcing a coalition of local groups intended to mitigate the growing problem.
In Richmond, heroin overdoses jumped from five fatalities in 2010 to 38 in 2015. According to tentative data from the Virginia Department of Health, from January through July 2016 there are 14 recorded deaths attributed to heroin overdoses.
An updated report is expected from the department in October, but more than a dozen local organizations are working together through the Recovery Coalition to address the state, and city-wide, crisis.
VCU’s Health System, Department of Psychology, Institute for Women’s Health, Rams in Recovery program and the C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research are all stakeholders in the coalition, along with emergency responders and non-profits dedicated to recovery from addiction.
“It’s an every day battle still,” said Michael Quinn, the intake specialist at the McShin Foundation, a non-profit recovery organization located in Henrico and a partner in the coalition. Quinn, like all administrators at the foundation, went through McShin’s peer-to-peer program personally. He has been clean from opioids for more than a year.
The McShin Foundation has taken huge strides in combatting the growing opioid epidemic since the non-profit’s formation in 2004. This spring, McShin’s class of Recovery High School students boasted nine pupils from the Richmond, Henrico and Chesterfield areas.
Recovery High School takes place at the foundation’s 15,000 square foot space off Dumbarton Road and allows high school students to complete their school work in an environment they are less likely to relapse or use.
Stas Novitsky, the McShin Foundation’s director of youth and family development, launched the program with one student last January. By the spring, teachers from Henrico County were working with the school’s nine students one-on-one or in small groups on a daily basis.
“A big problem is that pills are so easy to get and that’s where a lot of people start,” said Jen, a VCU senior who has been clean for three years and asked her last name not be used. “And sadly I think for a lot of kids that’s starting in high school now.”
Jen said she thinks the problem is more severe now than ever because people are cutting heroin with fentanyl, a prescription pain medication, to increase the high.
“Even for someone who’s injecting every day, sometimes all it takes is one hit if it’s cut with something,” Jen said. “And they might not even know it’s in there.”
According to the Virginia Department of Health, fentanyl only accounted for eight total overdose deaths between 2007 and 2013 in Richmond. But that number spiked sharply in 2014, when fentanyl was responsible for 11 deaths in the River City that year alone. Sixteen Richmond overdose fatalities were solely attributed to fentanyl in 2015.
Tentative numbers from the Virginia Department of Health document 10 fentanyl overdose deaths in the first six months of 2016.
For too many people, the epidemic in Virginia weighs much heavier than statistics. Jen said she knows six people who have overdosed on opiates this year alone.
“I think it’s hard for people – for addicts and the people who care about them, but maybe don’t grasp this disease – to admit there’s something really wrong,” Jen said. “And that fucking sucks, because the only way out is to get help. To realize there’s hope.”
In September 2015, the Center for Disease Control dedicated funds to 16 states with the highest increases in overdose deaths, including Virginia.
Of the 12 states with statistically significant increases in opioid overdoses from 2013 to 2014, Virginia ranked ninth with a 14.7 percent change over the course of a year.
Nationally, more people overdosed fatally from opioid abuse in 2014 than any other year on record. In response, the CDC dedicated funding through the “Prevention for States” program in September 2015.
The CDC plans to give selected states annual awards between $750,000 and $1 million to advance prevention measures through 2019.
For Jen, it took hitting “rock bottom” before she realized she needed recovery if she wanted to live.
“My little sister found me on the bathroom floor,” Jen said. “She just kept saying ‘what happened to you, what happened to you.’ I’ll never forget that. Nobody deserves to see that.”
Jen said she still reminds herself of that night, even though it was years ago. She still attends meetings. All it takes to “slip up” is to forget the power of this disease, she said.
“There’s absolutely nothing worse than going to funerals for your friends – holding their mom, or siblings – knowing it could be your family instead, and knowing they had no idea, either.”
The McShin Foundation – (804) 249-1845
2300 Dumbarton Rd, Richmond, VA 23228
1st floor of The Well, 815 S. Cathedral Place
Sarah is a senior studying political science and philosophy of law. She is a copyeditor for INK Magazine and reporter for the Capital News Service wire. Last spring, the Virginia Press Association awarded Sarah 3rd place for Public Safety Writing Portfolio and the Hearst Awards recognized her as the 4th place winner for Breaking News Writing. In April, Sarah was invited to the White House for the Administration’s innaugural College Reporter Day. She previously worked as an editorial intern for as Congressional Quarterly Researcher and SAGE Business Researcher in Washington, D.C., as well as RVAmag and GayRVA.com
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Julie is a senior photo major, minoring in media studies. She worked as a staff photographer for the CT for two years before becoming photo editor. Julie also works for the VCU Libraries handling and preparing books belonging to VCU or are borrowed from other institutions. Last semester Julie studied abroad at UWE Bristol.
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