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Social media and the heroin epidemic

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Posted at 8:00 AM, Feb 20, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-20 18:41:47-05

CINCINNATI--When Jesse Warren came home from work one day, he found the basement in his Highland Heights home was flooded, all three rooms filled with water.

Jesse Warren and his sister Christina Herald

He thought maybe someone was in the shower too long, but wasn’t sure because he seemed to be the only one home—but he wasn’t alone, his sister was upstairs, dying. Heroin killed her.

Warren’s not the only person in Greater Cincinnati who has experienced this, as heroin is taking lives across the Tri-State at an alarming rate.

Like almost all of us, 22-year-old Warren uses social media. But instead of selfies and food photos, he tries to spread the word about how addiction tears families apart. He responded to a comment on the WCPO 9 On Your Side Facebook page a few weeks ago, defending law enforcement's use of naloxone, the overdose antidote.

He sees hateful messages about heroin addicts often online, he said, and he tries to remind these commenters that “it’s an addiction, it’s not a choice.”

WCPO  has created a heroin advisory board to address the epidemic in the Tri-State. Several members of the board have noted the impact that social media has, both good and bad.

Online commenters have never been known for their kindness, but Warren says he’s found some support through a social media community talking about heroin addiction.

But he's sees the negative side too and he often speaks up when he sees commenters making uninformed statements about addiction online.

“I think they just don’t understand, because they’ve never been through it with their family,” Warren said. “…the people online, they’re absolutely ridiculous. “

Jesse Warren and his sister Christina Herald (left). Herald died of a heroin overdose.

He’s seen people online describe addicts as “numbers,” but he wants them to know that these are people, and families, going through their own versions of hell.

“If there was anything I could say to people, (I’d say) give these people a chance, look into their lives, see who they are or see what might have triggered this,” he said. “I read her diary (after she died)…It said ‘I don’t want to be on this earth anymore, she lost her kids and her nursing license (to heroin.) “

We ask the expert: Are these opinions about heroin accurate? 

Heroin kills more people than car accidents in the Buckeye State. That’s been the case for nearly a decade, according to Ohio Department of Health numbers.

Research shows these overdoses, the leading cause of injury-related death in Ohio, caused 2,482 deaths in the state last year.

It’s nearly an 18 percent increase in Ohio’s overdose deaths from just the year before, but this doesn’t surprise Erin Winstanley, who is an assistant professor of health outcomes at the University of Cincinnati.

Winstanley studies how to improve treatment for those with substance abuse issues, and calls these deaths a “substantial increase.”

“It’s impacting all of our communities and touching lives,” she said. "Parents aren’t supposed to bury their children.”

Still, many people in the Tri-State don’t think the epidemic affects them. WCPO asked Winstanley to respond to Facebook comments received on different story posts about the heroin epidemic—ranging from topics like naloxone to overdoses. Not all comments were negative.

Here’s what she had to say:

“So if they think that having Narcan means they are going to be able to use heroin and not die, people are going to use heroin one way or another,” Winstanley said. “I think we’re sort of, instead of seeing the cup half full, we are seeing it half empty in that kind of statement.”

Naloxone gives the opportunity to prevent death, while someone who dies using heroin doesn’t get the chance to recover.

There’s no set number of times an addict needs to be revived by naloxone before they are able to complete treatment, Winstanley said.

Fentanyl-related overdoses have also risen in Ohio. Last year 514 people died in fentanyl-related overdose deaths, according to Ohio Department of Health research. Hamilton County has the highest number of deaths with 80 in 2014. Neighboring Butler County had 49 deaths and Clermont County saw 22 deaths.

When it comes to naloxone use, Winstanley says the bigger question is, how can officials not use it?

“Fifty dollars to save someone’s life, it’s absolutely amazing,” she said.

“Are we enabling them? This kind of talk we hear a lot when we are thinking about harm reduction,” Winstanley said. “We are giving someone struggling two choices, you’re either an active user or you’re in recovery and you’re abstinent. That doesn’t reflect reality.”

Addiction isn’t an all-or-nothing thing, she says. Usually it’s more of an in-between. For example, she says offering clean needles isn’t enabling.

“They’re going to continue one way or another,” she said. “Similar to Narcan, whether they have Narcan or not they are reusing because of the impulse and addicted liability within the drug they are using.”

Drugs impact the brain in a way that makes it hard to make good decisions, she said, adding, “it doesn’t mean we can’t recover, (we’re just) not making the best decisions.”

“I understand that people get impatient, is it a year, is it two weeks, how many times is an EMS going to have to revive my brother?” she said. “At some point we will do a better job at being able to get people in (treatment) and engage them.”

But until then, Winstanley stresses the issue isn’t simply black-and-white. Professionals are focusing on trying to keep people safe, preventing hepatitis C and keeping them from dying before recovery.

“We don’t penalize people because they chose to eat fast food and not exercise,” she said. “What can we do that will make people make better decisions? How can we get people to exercise more and eat a better diet?”

“I think it’s like, being able to sort of find what kind of moral failing should result in someone dying, what kind of mistake has someone ever made that they deserve to die, and not be given the opportunity to recover?,” Winstanley said.

Once someone has repeated exposure to a drug, their brain chemistry changes, Winstanley said, “It’s not fun to be a drug addict.”

At the very least, Winstanley says social media can create a different dialogue about addiction, by addressing the views of those who don’t think they are affected by it.

“I think, to a certain extent, we need to be honest about what people think about addiction,” she explained. “I don’t think we need to candy coat this. We should have an open and honest dialogue. And in some respects, social media does that whether we like it or not.”

Social media isn’t only toxic -- it can be uplifting.

For local addiction advocacy groups, spaces online such as Facebook have turned into forums, support groups and agents of help for those dealing with the heroin epidemic.

WCPO.com contacted a number of the groups to see how social media platforms help.

NKY Hates Heroin

If it weren’t for Facebook then maybe two busloads of people, all in support of Northern Kentucky Hates Heroin, wouldn’t have shown up in Frankfort, waiting for the beginning of the legislative session. 

Maybe that group of people wouldn’t have been addressed by Kentucky’s Governor Steve Beshear, even when he wasn’t scheduled to meet with them. But both of those things happened, and “It took your breath away,” NKY Hates Heroin Board Chair Chris Stegner said.

Stegner started the group after he lost his nephew to an overdose in 2013. Since then, it's amassed more than 10,000 Facebook followers. Initially, Stegner said they used the page to post about town hall meetings, asking people to come and educate themselves about the epidemic.

It's grown since then.

“We truly feel like, there were many, many players in this heroin legislation, we like that we were part of that,” Stegner said. “And Facebook played a pivotal role in getting that word out. We probably could’ve loaded two more buses, pushing that (information) out on Facebook. “

NKY Hates Heroin also receives a number of messages on Facebook from people asking where they can go for help.

“A group likes ours, again it’s where (people) come for resources, for possible answers and to share their stories,” he said.

Harleys against Heroin

Since 2014, members of Amelia-based Harleys Against Heroin have worked to make a difference and help those looking for heroin treatment.

“We donate all of our proceeds to different facilities,” said member Nikki Patton, adding that some people don’t have the means to afford treatment.

That’s where Harleys Against Heroin comes in. The group donates money to treatment centers. Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center also benefits from some funds that are directed to babies born addicted.

Harleys Against Heroin tries to do an event every other month, Patton said, and its annual ride is July 30 of this year.

The group is active on social media, which is beneficial to its followers, because many have contacted them to get help.

“We’ve got a lot of people who have had a family member that needs help,” Patton explained. “We have a bunch of different resources and different places they can contact.”

Where to go on Facebook for support and information:

• NKY Hates Heroin
We Hate Heroin 
Drug Free NKY
People Advocating Recovery Northern Kentucky 
Drugs Don’t Work of Northern Kentucky 
Northern Kentucky Heroin Impact Response Task Force 
Brave Choices: Stop Heroin Addiction and Emotional Abuse
Heroin Doesn’t Care
PreventionFirst 
Interact For Health
Brighton Center
Center for Addiction Treatment