Increased numbers of opioid overdose deaths are a major societal problem in Horry County, South Carolina, and across the United States. Part of the problem is the attitude of many people who view drug abuse as the fault of the abusers, those who say, “They should not have started using drugs in the first place.”
Perhaps some folks with no empathy for drug abusers don’t understand that addictions, to alcohol, gambling, opioids and tobacco, are diseases. As with other diseases, addiction requires treatment, and there’s no question Horry County is woefully short of treatment centers.
At Shoreline Behavioral Health Services, for example, about 20 women are on a wait list for the 10-bed residential program. The Sun News reported the lack of treatment programs in an article by Chloe Johnson. One center director, John Coffin, discussed the financial devastation of drug addiction. When users lose jobs and family support, they typically also lose their insurance.
Medicaid often pays for residential treatment, but that option may start to disappear if federal lawmakers slash money for the the program, as many members of Congress evidently want to do. Coffin noted a broader rehabilitation program, for men and women, was eliminated when Horry County stopped funding during the Recession of 2008.
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“Unless these programs are heavily supported by state and or local governments, they tend to go under,” Coffin said.
In times of public revenue shortfalls, drug abuse treatment and prevention programs are among the first to suffer financial loss, like music and arts education in the public schools. Such decisions by public officials are related to the general population’s attitudes, based on lack of understanding, about drug abuse.
Drug abuse creates all sorts of problems that reach beyond an individual user: less productivity on the job, and eventually loss of the job; stress in families that becomes poor performance of children in school; users are incarcerated – sentenced by courts because the users have broken laws.
Horry County Sheriff Philip Thompson made an important point in the article. “From a law enforcement perspective, you’re just not going to arrest your way out of it. This is not just something they can stop doing. They need help, they need assistance.”
One intravenous heroin user who relapsed after being clean for 120 days said: “This is a life-or-death disease. No matter what other people think, you can try your hardest not to use, but if you are an addict without working with some sort of a program, you’re going to die.”
It’s a startling fact that in 2016, here in Horry County, 101 people died of opioid overdoses. That sad number means Horry County leads all S.C. counties in opioid overdose deaths. Charleston County is second, with 65 deaths.
It’s also important to understand that many users of illegal opioids, such as heroin, started opioid use with prescription drugs. A case in point is the young women featured in the article who “was prescribed Roxicodone after giving birth by C-section in a different state. When she came to South Carolina, her supply of pills was cut off, so she moved on to heroin.” Some medications for pain are in the same powerful class of drugs, opioids, as heroin.
Across the state, 550 people died in 2016 from drug overdose with prescription opioid drugs, an 18 percent increase from overdose deaths in 2014.
Only one Horry County medical provider, Lighthouse Behavioral Health Hospital in Conway, has medically supervised opioid detoxification. And there are few residential rehabilitation programs. The 101 deaths last year clearly suggest that Horry County must be more proactive in supporting medically-sound drug treatment programs, as well as in public education and information about the opioid addiction-abuse epidemic.
The epidemic has a degree of legislative attention, which should lead to more state money to support treatment programs. The House Opioid Abuse Prevention Study Committee recently heard testimony at a hearing in Conway, one of several around the state.
In addition to more treatment for drug abuse, non-users, as well as potential users, need need more information about opioid addiction and abuse.
Opioid overdose deaths
101 | Horry County opioid overdose deaths in 2016, the highest number of fatal opioid overdoses in all S.C. counties
65 | Charleston County opioid overdose deaths in 2016
550 | South Carolina deaths from overdose with prescription opioid drugs in 2016; up 7 percent from 512 in 2015; up 18 percent from 464 in 2014
S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control