TOMS RIVER – A panel of five experts addressed the crisis of opioid addiction using the township as a lens for a much broader state-wide and national problem.
The event was the third in a series of meetings called “Knock Out Opioid Abuse Town Hall” that featured local experts who discussed the issue and solutions through their own experiences and perspectives.
The Sept. 25 forum held at the Toms River branch of the Ocean County Library, included Township Mayor Thomas Kelaher, Ocean County Prosecutor Bradley D. Billhimer, Hope Sheds Light Volunteer Coordinator Heather Price, Holy Cross Lutheran Church Pastor Rev. Susan S. Jones, and Toms River resident and Hope Sheds Light Co-Founder Beverly Prima.
Hope Sheds Light, a township based non-profit group dedicated to helping families impacted by addiction joined forces with the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office to present the program which was also sponsored through a Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey (PDFNJ) and The Horizon Foundation for New Jersey (Horizon BCBSNJ).
PDFNJ Executive Director Angelo Valente said prior to the meeting that “we’re seeing progress in that there is greater awareness of this epidemic and residents are being very proactive about the presence of opioid addiction which was not the case five years ago.
“We still need to break down the stigma that still exists. There are no easy answers for solving the opioid epidemic, but together we can make a difference in this important fight,” Valente added.
Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, through its philanthropic arm, The Horizon Foundation for New Jersey, is collaborating with PDFNJ on a new two-year Knock Out Opioid Abuse initiative to address the opioid epidemic through community outreach, prescriber education, parent education and a statewide awareness campaign.
Valente said “the town halls have gone from county to county and now we are going to one community in the county and drilling down on what is happening there, what the services available are and what needs to be added or expanded upon. It impacts everyone, the people we work with and socialize with. This is a disease and there is suffering.
“There are two main goals, prevention which means educating the public as to what an opioid is, and the other part is treatment and recovery and that is crucial. We try to connect them with services on the local level. We work with agencies of government, the medical community and groups like Hope Sheds Light,” Valente said.
Last year, Ocean County’s 217 drug overdose deaths – most of which involved some form of opioid – ranked fourth among New Jersey’s 21 counties, according the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General. Law enforcement officers administered the overdose antidote, naloxone, 811 times that same year.
Mayor Kelaher said “it is very frustrating as a mayor and former Ocean County Prosecutor to see this. We work with the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office Narcotics Strike Force and our police department formed a unit of its own.”
Kelaher noted that the township has seen 30 opioid deaths so far this year. “The total was 40 last year and we have 144 cases where Narcan was used. We do everything we can to stop it but we can’t do it alone.”
“The numbers are down and we are working hard. Events like this raise community awareness,” Billhimer said. “Partnerships like this are key. You can’t arrest your way out of this. We reach out to groups like Hope Sheds Light which is fantastic.”
“I didn’t want to admit I was an addict. It was while I was in treatment that I received word that the state was going to take my daughter. That is the last time I used. I want my children to understand it is alright to ask for help,” Price said.
“The only reason I’m an expert is that I’ve lived this. I lost my parents to addiction. We don’t always recognize how we can participate in this. I’m a fighter not a hider. It is import to show everyone that they are important simply because they exist,” Jones said concerning resources for addiction recovery.
Prima shared the painful loss of her son which led to her and her husband forming Hope Sheds Light. “My son grew up in Toms River and he was smart, athletic, kind and quiet before this disease came into his life. During his senior year we saw changes of irritability, sleepless nights and his grades started to slip. I thought no, this is not my son. I took away his phone and saw numerous texts and it was apparent he had problems.
“I found out after going to recovery meetings that I was not alone as a parent of an addict. I found that I was addicted to my son and my husband and I needed to learn that you don’t have to do this alone. That there is help,” Prima said.
Since January, there have been 181 opioid overdoses in Toms River, 20 of which were fatal, according to recent data from the New Jersey Army National Guard (NJARNG) Counterdrug Task Force.
“We each play a role in the solution, and today was the first step,” said Valente. “It is only together, through unified efforts, that we can effectively approach and develop ways to resolve this public health crisis.”
To see a video of the Toms River Knock Out Opioid Abuse Town Hall or to see the fall schedule of upcoming town halls, visit knockoutopioidabuse.drugfreenj.org.