The Dayton Daily News has been covering the local impact of the opioid crisis for more than five years, telling the stories of loss and hope, and the cost to our communities. Now we’re partnering with journalists across the state to bring local people together and identify solutions. PHOTO BY CHRIS STEWART
Photo: Chris Stewart
Photo: Chris Stewart

Media to hold forums on Miami Valley drug crisis, examine solutions

Local journalists who have spent years covering the escalating death toll and costly side effects of the drug crisis are looking to work together with the community to identify solutions.

Your Voice Ohio is a media collaborative of more than 30 Ohio news organizations, including the Dayton Daily News, will sponsor community meetings next month to hear directly from anyone, no matter their perspective on this issue.

Radio, TV and newspaper outlets are asking: What do the people in our communities need most to understand and address this crisis?

“To address the opioid epidemic, we need to better understand it. We can only do that if we’re listening to community members, engaging community members and providing communities with the information they need to take productive action,” said Andrew Rockway, director of the Jefferson Center, a nonprofit partner on the project.

Despite the best efforts of journalists to tell the important stories in the community and provide readers with context to efforts to fight back, the situation in Southwest Ohio has only gotten worse. More than 1,000 people died in the region in both 2016 and 2017.

Although the death toll was lower than expected last year in Montgomery County, more than 550 lost their lives to drugs — more than double the number of fatal overdoses just two years earlier. The Miami Valley is considered by many to be one of the nation’s opioid epicenters.

Trends indicate that more than 4,000 Ohioans could die this year due to opioid-related overdoses — more people in one year in one state than died of terrorism attacks in the entire country in the past 20 years.

Yet a new story may be emerging, one of hope that the crisis can be turned. In a growing number of towns and cities, organizations and local governments have begun to create or adapt solutions that make a difference.

More than 30 news organizations serving the people of Ohio have partnered to share those solutions and help communities think about which ones may be adaptable locally.

Your Voice Ohio held its first experiment in the Youngstown-Warren area last fall. News organizations there held three public meetings and heard from individuals who shared their personal struggles with addiction, from mothers who lost sons and from residents who are weary of the public cost.

Next month the group will host similar meetings in Dayton, Middletown, suburban Cincinnati, Wilmington and Washington Court House. Journalists will join residents at the table to listen and participate. The hope is to come away with new ideas.

One key of this project is a focus on solutions, to show that this isn’t a hopeless crisis. People, institutions and governments are saving lives.

“Our reporters at the Dayton Daily News have been digging into the drug crisis for several years, with stories ranging from how addiction affects the children in our community to its toll on medics and police officers. We’ve worked to tell our readers what’s really going on,” Dayton Daily News Editor Jim Bebbington said. “We want the community to tell us what they believe will make a lasting difference.”

In the Youngstown-Warren community meetings, one man with a child said he had been clean for nearly a year, but he cannot survive unless someone has enough faith to hire him so that he can support his family. At one table, three women struggled with guilt as they told of their sons secretly using heroin, then dying of overdoses.

In another meeting, some expressed disgust, saying drug dependence is a result of poor choices and creates a great public cost.

The forums in February will begin with the assumption that communities are best equipped to identify and act on effective solutions. Participants will be asked whether opioids have affected their lives and how. They’ll be asked how the area would look if it were successfully turning the crisis around and what must be done to get there.

Who is affected? Occupations that require physical labor — roofers, laborers, construction workers — are over-represented among those who have died, according to a Dayton Daily News investigation that used collaborative data from Your Voice Ohio partners.

But the list includes everyone: police, security guards, medical technicians and teachers. The Dayton Daily News has reported on a commercial airline pilot and his wife were among the fatal overdoses, as well as a high school football coach in Clark County.

For every user who dies, it’s believed hundreds of users struggle to maintain a job and family. WYSO public radio told of a young woman in the Dayton Correctional Institution who was injured in a high school sporting event, prescribed pain killers, arrested on drug-related charges and when she was freed from prison, died of an overdose. Some are killing the pain of depression brought by the collapse of Ohio’s industrial economy.

What are the solutions? Leaders in some communities are aggressive in enforcing the law, saying that arrests will curb the problem. Others are aggressive in providing a social network of help.

The Community Overdose Action Team in Montgomery County was created last year with the aim of uniting the community.

“It is only through a collaborative effort that we can reduce the number of fatal overdoses,” said Jeff Cooper, county health commissioner. “We recognize that the opioid crisis is a community problem, and we are seeking input from a cross-section of community partners to help us develop solutions to the crisis.”

In the weeks leading up to the local meetings, this news organization will present stories of those making a difference in Ohio — consistently ranked among the four worst states in the nation for overdose deaths per capita — and how they are doing it. The stories will also examine solutions statistically proven to make a positive change.

The goal is to find proven solutions that change the conversation from one of devastation to one of action and perhaps hope.

This Ohio effort is unique to U.S. journalism. Begun in 2015 to jointly cover the 2016 election with a focus on what’s important to Ohioans, Your Voice Ohio has continued with a focus first on opioids, and later on how to build a more vibrant Ohio.

Have questions or comments about this project? Email reporter Katie Wedell at kwedell@coxohio.com or heroin@yourvoiceohio.org

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