I always admired the strength and courage of grieving parents who turn tragedy into advocacy, hoping to bring into the world what could have saved their own child’s life. On July 13, 2018, that inspiration became a call to action when we lost our son Alec to an accidental overdose in Canaan, CT on his 26th birthday.

Alec suffered from the concurrence of a bipolar condition and the disease of addiction. He was fully engaged in recovery and looked forward to a spiritually fulfilling life of sobriety empowered by the love of God, family, and friends. Unfortunately, like so many victims that have passed in Connecticut, Alec’s odds of battling addiction disease successfully were severely hampered for three reasons: the lack of a standard of care in treatment centers and sober living homes, the absence of societal structure
that would provide Alec with the support he needed to stay on the path to recovery, and the scourge of illicit fentanyl plaguing our country and state.

Alec died unwittingly of an acute fentanyl overdose.

According to the CDC, over 70,000 people died in the U.S. in 2017 because of accidental drug overdose, and life expectancy has fallen consecutively for three years due to the opioid crisis. Accidental overdose is the number one cause of death in our country for people under the age of 55. The disease of addiction is non-discriminatory and hits every community and demographic.

Connecticut has been hit especially hard by this epidemic. Opioid-related overdose deaths in our state climbed 400 percent from 2012 to 2017, with over 1,000 deaths for each of the past two years. Fentanyl related deaths now account for over 70 percent of overdoses. Connecticut is in a public health state of emergency and it’s critical that our leaders find multi-pronged solutions to mitigate this epidemic.

We can look to Dayton, Ohio as an example — where a targeted approach has been successful. Two years ago, Dayton had one of the worst opioid epidemics in the country, but a comprehensive plan has reduced the overdose rate by 65 percent in just one year. The plan included harm reduction services, ensuring that all stakeholders treat addiction like a disease, purposeful
and rapid data collection and handling, and collaborative efforts between community members, government agencies, the business sector, and local nonprofits.

Over the next few weeks, many Connecticut legislators are working to pass crucial legislation to help reduce the opioid crisis in our state. The best way that the people of Connecticut can help is to call their local legislators and urge them to support the following bills:

HB7125 – the Parity Bill will ensure that insurance companies cover addiction treatment the same way they do any other disease.

SB1057 among other items, requires higher education institutions to carry opioid antagonists such as Narcan that are available to students and employees. Narcan is an opioid blocker that saves lives by reversing an overdose. Only 10 percent of those suffering from addiction ever seek treatment and this bill will also look to establish community-based treatment centers that are widely accessible to all.

HB7395 would scale up initiatives to provide treatment to inmates who suffer from opioid addiction disease preceding and post release – those just released from prison are highly susceptible to overdose death in the first three weeks of release, especially because many of them are unaware that street drugs are now commonly laced with deadly fentanyl.

HB5524 would help deter the sale of deadly substances by increasing penalties for drug traffickers who sell fentanyl.

Implementing preventative measures such as education for our children is also important. Establishing evidence-based life skills programs in our schools would teach students to cope with anxiety and develop greater self-esteem. Certain life skills programs have shown to reduce drug abuse by 50 percent.

During one of the last conversations I had with Alec, I was running for statewide office. I asked him how I should address his disease of addiction if it came up in public discourse. Alec told me that I should be honest about his struggles with a disease that had taken the lives of so many of his young friends – a disease he wanted our leaders and health advocates to pay attention to and help with the same intensity they would if he was battling cancer.

One of the greatest moments of solace during this time of ineffable grief for our family happened when many of Alec’s peers came forward from across the country and told us how much he had helped them in their own recoveries. It was comforting to know that in his short life Alec made a meaningful difference to others, and the world was left a better place because of him.

In the darkest hours of grief, hope emerges as a sliver of light and life begins anew. For me, the hope is that Alec’s eternal love will shine in the success of helping those who can still be saved.

Please call your leaders and ask them to support the opioid bills. Together, we can overcome this crisis.

Dita Bhargava, a former candidate for State Treasurer is an Ambassador for Shatterproof, a national organization dedicated to ending the devastation caused to families by the disease of addiction. She can be contacted at DitaBhargavact@gmail.com.

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