More people died from heroin-related overdoses last year than suicides, traffic crashes, other accidents, homicides and undetermined causes combined, according to the Butler County Coroner’s Office.
The office said 189 people died from drug overdoses last year, and 149, or 79 percent, were heroin-related that includes heroin, fentanyl or a combination, the coroner’s office said.
Last year was the second straight year that drug overdoses were the leading cause of death among cases accepted by the coroner’s office. The 189 deaths were a 38-percent increase above 2014’s record-breaking number of 137, according to the coroner’s office.
The number of drug overdoses has steadily climbed since 2012, mostly due to heroin, the coroner’s office said.
These statistics aren’t surprising to those in the addiction and recovery business. They have seen first-hand the damage heroin has done in the community, and they don’t see a decline anytime soon.
In the 1960s, heroin users were usually men who started using around an average age of 16. They were most likely from low-income neighborhoods, and when they turned to opiates, heroin was their first choice.
Now, more than 50 years later, a study from The Journal of the American Medical Association paints a very different picture.
Today’s typical heroin addict starts using at 23, is more likely to live in the affluent suburbs and was likely unwittingly led to heroin through painkillers prescribed by his or her doctor.
Scott Gehring, CEO of Sojourner, a Butler County leader in mental health and addiction services, said drugs typically have a five- t0 seven-year cycle, but heroin, which has been a problem in the area for about seven years, is “gaining momentum.”
He said of the 450 clients receiving treatment at Sojourner, either as outpatients or residents, 396, or 88 percent, are addicted to heroin or opiates.
People become addictive, he said, even when they know the dangers.
“They want to stop,” he said. “They know their next use could be their last. What’s really sad, these people dying are our neighbors, our children, not somebody in an alley.”
One Middletown couple certainly understands heroin’s grip. Tiffany Hoskins, 35, said she was introduced to heroin six years ago after using marijuana and cocaine, and since then, it’s been a struggle escaping her drug addiction. Her boyfriend, Darrell Harvey, 60, has encouraged her to seek treatment. But now he’s upset how she was cared for, and he’s worried that as long as she continues shooting up heroin, her life is at risk.
“She’s playing Russian Roulette with a needle,” he said while sitting on the couch, a few feet from his girlfriend. “She’s putting bullets in the chamber and playing, ‘Will I live today or will I die today?’”
For Butler County, or anywhere to see a drop in heroin deaths, three steps have to be taken, said Gehring. In addition to addicts embracing treatment, the flow of drugs into the United States has to stop and health professionals, educators and public safety officials need to stress the dangers associated with heroin, he said.
By getting people into treatment, he said, “it gives them their life back and let’s them keep their life.”
Ron Ward, founder of Celebrating Recovery, a grass-roots organization in Middletown, said in the first two months of the year, about 30 addicts have been placed into treatment, a number that could quadruple with the necessary funding and advertising. The group meets every Thursday at Triple Moon Coffee Co. on Central Avenue, and every week, Ward said people are being placed in recovery.
“We are making a difference,” he said.
Then he added: “We can’t do this by ourselves.”
Ironically, the coroner’s office released its 2015 death statistics on Thursday, four days before a Heroin Summit is scheduled at Atrium Medical Center in Middletown. The summit, started in 2015 by City Manager Doug Adkins as a way to address the area’s heroin epidemic, draws community members and experts throughout Butler and Warren counties. They are tackling five categories related to heroin: prevention, identification and intervention, treatment, post treatment and community activities.
Adkins has said he wants to see a decrease in drug overdoses during the first quarter of 2016.
Melissa Schwarber, executive director of the Center of Hope for Women and Children, a homeless shelter, has seen plenty of female residents whose lives were derailed by drug addictions.
“Sad stories,” is how she described them. “Their hearts are screaming for help and they can’t get off this drug.”
She paused, she added: “Watching the children suffer is the most horrific part of it all.”
Schwarber said all the agencies were caught off guard by heroin.
“None of us anticipated this,” she said. “Not to this level of addiction. We thought there would be isolated cases here and there, but we never saw this.”