Mississippi is seeing a rise in drug overdoses related to the abuse of opioids. In the Mississippi Delta, MPB's Alexandra Watts reports, on how communities are responding to this growing problem.
Kellie Koenig remembers getting a phone call about her son Wiley.
“It's the chief deputy for the Washington County Sheriff’s Department calling me,” she remembers. “ I answered the phone and he said, ‘Kellie, I just want you to know that we have your son.’ And I said, ‘Is he okay?’ And he said, ‘He is now. We found him passed out in the Double Quick parking lot with a needle sticking out of his arm. Thank god you didn’t see what I saw. Thank god.’”
Koenig is a public defender in Greenville and familiar with the damage opioid abuse can do.
In 2010, Koenig’s son Wiley was injured in a boating accident and was prescribed prescription opiates to manage the pain.
He became addicted and when she got word he was stealing pills from a friend, Koenig confronted Wiley who confirmed her fears.
“I mean this was such an amazing sweet young man...kind and loving,” she said. “I had such high goals and dreams, and to think that my child would steal from anyone is like a sucker-punch. And he admitted it, he said, ‘Mom, I have a problem.’”
According to Stand Up Mississippi, a statewide initiative to end the opioid crisis, Mississippi is fifth in the nation for the number of opioid prescriptions written annually per capita.
In seven of the 18 Delta counties, there were more opioid prescriptions written than people.
Jeff Dunn works at Denton House, a recovery center in Greenwood. He has seen an increase in addiction to prescription pills and heroin -- a cheaper, more accessible drug.
“When I started here ten years ago, one out of every ten clients may have had opioids in their addictions,” he said. “Now we’ve seen it increase to 60% of who we take in.”
Naloxone, which is sold under the brand name Narcan, can rapidly reverse an opioid overdose. While the drug saves lives, it is not free.
Through grants provided by the Stand Up, Mississippi initiative, Narcan is made available to local law enforcement at no cost.
Greenwood Police Chief Ray Moore, said the drug has been a life-saving tool.
“I know on a couple of calls my officers have been on, the individuals were completely unresponsive and Narcan was administered,” he said. “By the time the ambulance service was getting there, they were coming back around.”
According to the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, in 2016, the Delta had the most drug overdose deaths in the state. A year later, the number of deaths statewide almost tripled.
Moore said law enforcement in rural areas have less manpower, less funding, and fewer resources compared to big cities. But, he says big or small, cities all around are dealing with the opioid crisis.
“We deal with exactly the same thing New York, Los Angeles…any other city…the only thing is, we deal with it on just a smaller scale.”
But Narcan is only a temporary solution to the persisting problem. There is still a need for addiction treatment throughout the Delta.
Dunn said he has seen an increase in treatment for other addictive substances.
“Another drug that has skyrocketed is methamphetamine,” he said. “And I have seen a lot of opiate addicts come in here that were turned to the meth because it was so cheap.”
The Denton House Recovery Center offers aftercare counseling and support meetings for people in recovery.
But for many, treating the addiction is a long process, and it isn’t something that is cured with just Narcan or a month in treatment.
Kellie Koenig talks about the long recovery process for her son Wiley, who has three children and a wife who is also in recovery.
“We’re into the eighth year now but he is in drug court now, and we’re very hopeful,” she said. ”So many people are saying, ‘No, not my child.’ And I was there, too, for a long time. But we’re past that, it’s time to talk about it. Our kids are dying.”
And while the opioid crisis won’t be cured overnight, Koenig hopes changes can be made one conversation at a time.