Photo by Nanci Hutson.
Originally Published: November 24, 2017 6:02 a.m.
Sally Schindel and Jill Martin are impassioned crusaders when it comes to battling drug addiction.
Just not by choice.
They don’t need anyone to cite grim statistics or describe a family’s agony and frustration as recovery proves elusive; these mothers became unwitting warriors after drug abuse forced them to bury their young adult sons.
“These are the heroes,” declared Yavapai County Chief Probation Officer John Morris.
Schindel and Martin were among about 50 local leaders and prevention advocates who attended a MatForce forum to reveal the results of the 2017 Yavapai County Overdose Fatality Review Board.
In 2016, Yavapai County Medical Examiner documented 80 drug-related deaths, including 46 accidental overdoses and 11 suicides. At least 44 involved multiple drug intoxication. Yavapai County is rated the third highest of all 15 of Arizona’s counties for drug-related deaths: a rate of 26.7 per 100,000 versus 16.9 per 100,000 statewide, according to official statistics.
Between January and June of this year, the review board did extensive investigation into nine of those deaths, including family interviews. Of those deaths, three were in Prescott and two in Prescott Valley; two were heroin overdoses, two were lethal effects of multiple drugs, including a lethal dose of fentanyl; two were methamphetamine overdoses; two were multiple drug intoxication, including methamphetamine and heroin and one case of a heroin and oxycodone overdose. The nine victims included five men, and four women aged between 20 and 53 with an average age of 32.
Both women said they welcome this renewed emphasis on how best to tackle not only the opioid epidemic, but the scourge of all illicit substances able to lure young teens into addiction. Six of the nine victims were introduced at an early age to alcohol and marijuana.
Schindel has faced a fair share of ridicule for taking a firm stand against marijuana, the drug she blames for the suicide death of her son, Andrew Zorn. She hears over and over from people that marijuana is harmless; she lives a different reality.
“As a mother, I think this is very helpful,” Schindel said of the findings of the 20-agency member board formed in August 2016. “There are so many people in this room who are aware and concerned.
The review board’s statistics are backed with recommendations for next step approaches focused on education and prevention, accessible and affordable substance abuse treatment and mental health services and changes in how pain is managed in the health community.
“I think there is still a lot of work to be done. But I’m happy to hear that MatForce is focused on prevention,” Schindel said. “Addiction is such a rabbit hole. Once you are in the hole it is so hard to crawl out.”
In the forum, law enforcement and prevention advocates revealed some of the common elements shared by those they examined: eight of the nine had a reported mental illness; five of the nine were on probation or parole at the time of death and had spent time in either jail or prison. Five of the nine had a family history of drug and alcohol addiction with three of the nine losing a significant other to a drug overdose. Eight of the nine were unemployed at the time of death, with seven of the nine homeless at the time of their death. Five of the nine suffered from medical ailments, with seven of them prescribed opioids.
Martin’s 22-year-old son, Joey, was prescribed his first painkillers following a serious car accident when he was just 16, jumpstarting what became an opioid addiction. For five years, he and his family endured a cycle of recovery treatment, relapse, and sober living homes. He was in his fourth sober-living group home in California at the time of his death.
In the aftermath of their son’s death, the Martins ascertained he was not receiving the trained treatment help he and other addicts require to become sober. From their pain, the Martins have become advocates of more stringent regulations related to the operation of sober-living homes. Martin’s husband, Glenn, is the chairman of a Prescott Ad Hoc Committee on Structured Living Homes. The Martins’ mission is to spare another family their heartache by assuring those running sober-living homes have the qualifications needed to promote recovery and that insurance companies help cover those costs.
In many cases, a drug-related death occurs after some form of treatment has been obtained, according to the review board’s results.
Seven of the nine victims studied by the review panel received outpatient treatment; five received inpatient treatment and one came to Yavapai County to obtain treatment.
The story behind this work, though, reaches far beyond statistics, the presenters said.
Like Schindel and Martin’s sons, these nine people were daughters, sons, brothers, sisters, even parents. They had dreams and aspirations; they were loved by families who wanted to find a way to help them kick their addiction.
The goal of all of those involved in this work – police, prosecutors, probation officers, mental health providers, community health leaders, educators and other prevention proponents – is to make a legacy out of these losses that saves future lives.
“I’m so grateful for so many good souls who are fighting the good fight,” Morris said.
Amid the complexity of addiction and mental health is “a lot of hope,” he declared.
“We’re all in this together,” Morris said of the various groups that are embracing this battle.
MatForce Executive Director Merilee Fowler was clear her agency wants to stop addiction before it starts. In kindergarten classes, she said MatForce advocates talk with children about how to make good choices.
“What would it mean to this community if we convinced kids to never use drugs or alcohol?” Fowler speculated. “We have a drug epidemic, and it’s not just opioids. Our prevention message is about all drugs.”