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Lauren Gallegos

By Lauren Gallegos

Have you lost a loved one to a drug or illicit substance overdose? You are not alone.

Preliminary data released by the CDC shows that drug overdose deaths reached a record high of 93,331 in 2020. While these estimates are not final, this number is 20,000 deaths higher than 2019 and the largest single-year percentage increase on record since 1999. 

Orange County experienced an astonishing 262% increase in drug deaths from 2019 to 2020. A growing portion of these deaths includes many first-time and casual users.

The people dying represent all walks of life, financial stations, cultures, and ethnicities. This is not just a problem for those with substance-use disorders and mental health diagnoses.

Part of this increase is attributable to counterfeit pills and tainted drugs. The main substance causing drug deaths in the U.S. (70%) is fentanyl. This chemical is found in nearly all black market-produced pills such as opioids, barbiturates, and hallucinogens.

Fentanyl is often found in cocaine, heroin, and illicitly purchased cannabis. Most of the “overdose” cases in hospitals and morgues are attributed to fentanyl, or fentanyl in combination with other drugs. The people dying may have accidentally taken too much, or they may have been poisoned by the fentanyl cut into the illicit drug.

Fentanyl and drug deaths were surging prior to the pandemic, but social isolation, inability to access treatment programs and support groups, and increasing rates of depression and anxiety have also been factors in the increase in overdose deaths.

In June 2020, the Neville family of Aliso Viejo experienced the tragedy of losing their son, Alexander, to fentanyl. He was 14 years old. He started trying pills a week before his death, and overdosed from a single pill (obtained through social media) with enough fentanyl to kill at least four other people.

In his memory, the family founded the Alexander Neville Foundation to increase awareness of opioids and prevent similar tragedies. 

This September, the Foundation and VOID (Victims of Illicit Drugs) released Dead on Arrival, a short film about fentanyl’s deadly role in the U.S. illicit drug market. The film explores the stories of four families who lost loved ones to fentanyl and its larger impact on various communities.

The film is also a primer on what makes this epidemic so deadly and pervasive. It looks at the manufacturing, the marketing, and the distribution process of illegal pills that allow easy access of fentanyl into homes. 

This film is a must-see for community members, and serves to educate all of us on opioids and warning signs that a teen might be beginning to use drugs. Some suggestions are to recognize new behaviors—constantly feeling unwell, changes in friend groups, and withdrawal from activities.

Please talk with young people about substance use. We recommend repeated brief conversations that engage young people in dialogue. These can be in the car, during dinner, or anytime that you have a minute with your teen.

Try conversation starters like, “I read there is an increase in illegal pills being sold online. Have you heard about this?” or, “I was wondering what you know about illegal drugs that young people might use?”

Raisinghealthyteens.org has great resources and tip sheets on how to talk to your teen about illegal substances and other difficult topics.

On Saturday, Oct. 23, OCSD is hosting National Take Back Day from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at San Clemente City Hall, where you can dispose of any prescription medications safely and anonymously. Drop boxes will also be available throughout the county.

If you think your teen is struggling, don’t hesitate to ask for help. You can contact the Wellness & Prevention Center (info@wpc-oc.org) for resources. If you suspect someone has used an illicit drug and has any symptoms of distress, please seek medical attention immediately. Do not put off getting help.

Lauren Gallegos, ACSW, is the Prevention Director at the Wellness & Prevention Center. You can reach her at lauren@wpc-oc.org.

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