State flags flew at half-staff Monday to honor the thousands of people in Connecticut who have died from a drug overdose over the years.
That includes Tony Morrissey’s son, Brian Cody Waldron, who died at 20 years old last August.
“That small symbol means something,” he said. “It shows our families, our kids, the fathers and the mothers that we have not forgotten about them, they have not left our train of thought, regardless of all the other obstacles.”
Morrissey stood on the north steps of the Capitol beside his wife, Tracey, their other children and other surviving family members of lost loved ones to commemorate International Overdose Awareness Day, a global event held every year to highlight the disease of addiction and reduce the stigma around drug-related deaths.
Fatal drug overdoses in Connecticut are rising -- nearly 650 people died during the first six months of this year, according to the most recent state data. It’s a jump of almost 18% from the same time period last year.
A majority of deaths involved the synthetic opioid fentanyl, which is 100 times more potent than morphine.
Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz said the coronavirus pandemic has only made the death toll from the addiction epidemic worse.
“Right now, we’re on track to have more deaths in our state than the 1,200 we had last year, so we have a lot to do,” she said.
Despite the overwhelming circumstances now facing people struggling with substance use disorder, advocates and families Monday stressed that recovery in addiction is possible and that changes could be made to save more lives.
Advocates called for increased federal funding, support for prevention and harm reduction services, expansion of telemedicine and better insurance coverage for treatment.
The Morrisseys are working with state legislators representing New Milford to pass Brian Cody’s Law, a set of proposals that includes getting a community navigator in every Connecticut municipality and stricter penalties for suppliers connected to fatal overdoses.
Dita Bhargava is an ambassador for Shatterproof, a national nonprofit centered on reversing the addiction crisis. She’s also a mother who lost a son to an opioid overdose.
“Though it seems like almost yesterday since we shared that last hug, every day since then has been a long one for our family,” she said.
Bhargava’s son Alec Pelletier, a “loving, intelligent, funny” athlete and older brother, died two years ago on his 26th birthday from a lethal amount of fentanyl. He suffered from bipolar disorder and depression, and began to self-medicate as a teenager.
Many policies have been passed in recent years aimed specifically at reducing drug overdose deaths, but Bhargava said the rising numbers show that it’s not enough and more needs to be done.
She proposed adopting safe injection sites where drug users could more easily be monitored and where people could be connected to treatment and recovery programs. She also stressed that pharmaceutical companies like Stamford-based Purdue, the makers of Oxycontin, should be held responsible.
Sue Kruczek of Guilford lost her son Nick to a drug overdose nearly seven years ago and has since worked as an activist. Kruczek said while the global event was a time to come together to raise overdose awareness and reduce related stigma, it was also a time to acknowledge the grief felt by family members and friends, to honor the memories of loved ones.
“We read life after death and near-death experiences, trying to finding any information available to make sense out of what has happened. You try to educate others to try to save another life,” Kruczek said. “You may smile and stand straight, but you will feel drained and crooked for the rest of your life. This is for my beloved angel Nick, may he rest in paradise, my beautiful angel.”
Anyone struggling with substance use issues looking for treatment assistance can call the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services’ 24/7 access line at 1-800-563-4086.