Katie Hill: Let’s join together to battle opioids

Katie Hill, executive director and deputy CEO of PATH and a candidate for Congress, is one of three Democratic candidates for the 25th California Congressional District race in 2018. She is seen here during a Signal-sponsored debate on Measure H in February. Dan Watson/The Signal
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Last week I was devastated when I saw the news about the heroin overdoses in the Santa Clarita Valley. Many people were shocked that something like this would happen in our community.

I wasn’t. I can’t even say I was shocked when I recognized the name of the victim who had died. I am sad to say he was my age and had been dating a friend whom I had been extremely close to back in high school, but who I had lost touch with over the years.

For the last several years, I have known all too well about the growing opioid epidemic in our valley, both through my work with PATH and as I’ve seen people I’ve grown up with struggle with addiction.

But last year it became far, far more personal. These recent overdoses are particularly terrifying to me and my family because one of the victims could have been my little brother.

My brother Danny is 12 years younger than me, so I’ve always felt like our relationship straddled the line between parent and sibling. Like most teenagers, when he was 15 he wanted to spend more time out of his parents’ house than in it. So my husband and I were more than happy to become his safe haven.

I was relieved that he would trust us enough to come to our house and share his life with us. When he started asking questions about marijuana and told us he had smoked a couple of times, I was glad that we were there to exert a good influence.

Unfortunately, it didn’t stop with just smoking pot a few times. We started to figure out that things were escalating, and when my husband and I finally confronted him about it, he stopped reaching out to us. He cut us out of his life because we didn’t fit in with his drug use.

I’ll be honest – I was in denial that my little brother could have been getting involved with drugs in a serious way at such a young age. I thought he was just engaging in some typical teenage rebellion. I never imagined that he was driving under the influence or that he was getting into harder and harder drugs.

Last February, I got a call from our mom saying he was missing. I dropped everything. I called and called his cellphone, thinking that he may not want to talk to our mom but he might pick up for me. Finally, an employee at the local KFC picked up and said someone had left the phone there. My family was panicked, thinking that he could have gotten in a car crash, or worse.

I left work so that we could all start searching for him, but shortly thereafter he came home. When he walked into the house, clearly in a dangerous state, we knew this was more than just a teenage rebellion.

We did the typical intervention. We sent my brother to a local rehab program, thinking that would be enough to wake him up and that he would realize that he had gone too far.

It didn’t work. After several attempts and many different programs, we finally decided that his life was in too much danger if he stayed here. And because he was 17, we knew this would be our last chance to compel him into any kind of treatment. If he turned 18 and decided he didn’t want or need help, there would be nothing we could do.

My family scraped everything they had together to send him to a wilderness program and a therapeutic boarding school out of state to get sober.

A big part of the program Danny has been in since August involves him coming totally clean about everything he had done. Through that we learned how deeply he had gotten into cocaine, ecstasy, acid and, especially, pain pills.

My little brother had become yet another statistic in the opioid epidemic and was a hair’s breadth away from going down the rabbit hole of heroin before we sent him away. Putting his life in danger was nothing when it came to getting numbingly high.

My family was lucky enough to be able to get my brother help, between what was supposed to be a substantial college fund, an inheritance, generous grandparents, and pooled resources to cover the rest.

But too many parents and families in our area don’t have the same opportunity to help the ones they love. Our (normally great) insurance would only pay for a few weeks of local inpatient rehab – not nearly enough for a teenager who isn’t ready to even realize he has a problem. Insurance isn’t paying a dime for the out-of-state programs.

While statistically, the opioid crisis isn’t as bad here as it is elsewhere in the country, our community needs to take action now before this horrible epidemic takes further hold in our own neighborhoods.

In 2015 alone, opioid overdose deaths rivaled the total lives lost in the entire crack-cocaine epidemic of the 1990s, and there are no signs of this crisis slowing down (Source: DISSENT).

We need resources. We need to give families the tools and programs they need to make a difference for someone who’s on the edge, before it’s too late.

We need to invest in educating our kids through effective means, which is more than “just say no,” and we need to give our law enforcement officials the resources and training they need to be part of the solution.

We need evidence-based, affordable and accessible treatment of all different types to meet any individual struggling where he or she is in the recovery process, treatment that will stay with that individual along the long, hard road to sobriety. And mental health care has to be part of the solution as well.

We have some outstanding programs here in the Santa Clarita Valley like Action, Light of Hope, AA/NA, and more that are making a huge difference in people’s lives. But it’s not enough when young people are dying, and we need more.

We also need increased accountability for those prescribing opioids. Last year, California passed SB 482, which requires all prescribers to check the state-run prescription database before prescribing opioid painkillers, sedatives or any other schedule II, III or IV drugs (Source: Cal Leg). But it is important to note that, as of right now, there is no federal database.

We need solutions at every level, from community organizing to the federal government. I’m going to do everything I can to help start that process. Over the next couple of months, I want to bring folks together from every corner of this district to talk about solutions, and I want it to be a bipartisan effort. I hope you will join me.

Heroin doesn’t care where you’re born, who you love, what religion you practice, or who you vote for. Let’s work together to stop this crisis in its tracks before it takes another young life from our community.

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