Hundreds of people gathered in downtown New London Thursday night in a vigil aimed at drawing attention to the recent epidemic of heroin overdoses.
There have been more than 20 overdose cases in the New London area in the last ten days, and that emergency brought together families who’ve lost loved ones, along with community leaders to call for action. “I lost my son. And I’m fighting for everybody else, because I couldn’t save my son," said Lisa Cote Johns. "And things have to change. We have to make a change so it stops.”
Johns’s son Christopher became addicted while he was still in high school. He was prescribed Oxycontin after two surgeries, and later turned to heroin. He died in 2014 at the age of 33.
Now Johns is one of the co-founders of Community Speaks Out, the group behind the vigil. “We need to erase the stigma, and not be ashamed of our children who suffer from a disease," she said. "And we can’t keep it a secret any more, because the longer we keep it a secret, the worse the epidemic is becoming, and we can’t have it any more. We can’t.”
“The epidemic has been very, very bad. It’s worse than I’ve ever seen it,” said Debbie Blount. She lost her son Patrick to an overdose, also in 2014. She says her feelings are those of parents all over the state who’ve had the same experience. “It’s awful. Every day, every day I cry. Every day I think about why didn’t I know that he needed my help that night when he left.”
Community Speaks Out wants to see more long-term rehabilitation facilities in the state. At the moment, addicts who reach out for help can often wait months for services. “When you’re on this drug you have to get help," said Blount. "You have to get professional help. You can’t do it by yourself.”
Joe de la Cruz’s son is currently in recovery. When de la Cruz addressed the vigil, he had a hopeful message. “As awful and as horrible as this disease is, I’m done crying about it," he told the crowd. "I think this may be the thing that makes our country stronger, because we are going to come together.”
But these advocates are likely to hear a mixed message from Hartford.
Governor Dannel Malloy has just introduced legislation to increase access to the overdose reversal drug Narcan, which has saved many lives in southeastern Connecticut in recent days. But he’s also proposed millions of dollars in cuts to substance abuse treatment programs -- the kind of longer term help this group says is sorely needed.