Morris County Observes International Overdose Awareness Day
Published on September 01, 2023
Powerful Stories of Loss, Grief and Vigilance Marked Annual Ceremony
The 22nd Anniversary of International Overdose Awareness Day was a solemn and heartfelt occasion as Morris County, state officials and community organizations joined the families of overdose victims in Parsippany Township yesterday.
They gathered to remember lost loved ones, but said their lives were not lost in vain. Instead, their deaths serve as poignant reminders of the need for a communal effort to reduce the stigma and take action against the opioid crisis in the United States.
“By promoting awareness and education, we hope to inform more individuals both young and old alike to be alert about the warning signs associated with synthetic opioids. Our gathering here today gives us the opportunity to exchange insight and ideas, so we can best help our communities save lives, improve treatments and ensure a more sustainable route to recovery for survivors. No one should ever feel like they are alone in this fight or feel embarrassed or scared to ask for help,” stated State Sen. Anthony M. Bucco during his opening remarks as the moderator of the event.
His office hosted the ceremony with Morris County Commissioner Deputy Director Christine Myers and Commissioner Deborah Smith, Morris County Sheriff James M. Gannon, Morris County Prosecutor Robert J. Carroll and members of the Morris County Department of Human Services. The ceremony was held on the lawn of the Morris County Addiction Center off Central Avenue, where Morris County planted a weeping cherry tree in 2020 to mark the county’s inaugural recognition of the day.
“The opioid crisis affects individuals of all ages, genders, races and socioeconomic backgrounds. It reaches into our homes, our workplaces and our neighborhoods. By acknowledging this fact, we foster a sense of shared commitment and a responsibility to work towards solutions, ” stated Commissioner Deputy Director Myers. She went on to cite some of the mental health and substance abuse services and programs available through the county.
Commissioners Myers and Smith presented honorary plaques to two longtime community volunteers, Kathleen Hyland and Carol Egan. Sen. Bucco also awarded citations to the women for their years of civic duty and selfless commitment to the county.
Hyland and Egan are considered pioneers in the fight to combat the opioid crisis and substance abuse. They began meeting with citizens in Morristown to develop drug and alcohol prevention programs in schools and the communities 35 years ago. Their efforts resulted in the first Municipal Alliance in the state of New Jersey in 1990, when relationships with community leaders led to offering life-changing opportunities for teens who needed substance abuse interventions and counseling.
Today, their organization, “Positive Pathways”, supports students at the Morris School District by offering a confidential environment where those struggling with a loved one’s current or past substance abuse can obtain help. Once a student receives support, they are clients for life and are welcome to reach out to counselors for mentoring at any time.
As drug-related overdose deaths have continued to rise around the country, the good news for New Jersey is they have been declining for the past two years. Detective Sergeant Kevin Coyle of the New Jersey State Police’s Office of Drug Monitoring and Analysis said that in April 2023, drug-related deaths were at the lowest statewide since 2017, down 12% relative to 2022, a year when they were down 7% overall.
There were 74 suspected drug-related deaths in Morris County in 2022, but to date in 2023, there have been only 30 suspected fatal overdoses.
Sheriff Gannon said he believes the reduction locally is due in part to initiatives such as the Hope One and Navigating Hope mobile outreach vans, and projects such as Hope Hub as well as efforts by the Morris County’s Human Services Department and non-profit agencies to build community awareness and recognition around mental health and substance abuse.
Sheriff Gannon cautioned, however, that there is no cause for celebration in Morris County, as fentanyl continues to increase the risk of fatal overdose, especially in conjunction with the rising prominence of new synthetic drug called “xylazine,” a threat underscored by Morris County Prosecutor Robert Carroll.
“Xylazine, an FDA-approved animal sedative and pain reliever not meant for human consumption, is the ‘newest co-murderer’ contributing to overdose deaths along with fentanyl. Dealers lace heroin and other recreational drugs with fentanyl and xylazine, creating a mix that is exponentially more powerful than users anticipate,” stated Prosecutor Carroll.
As he spoke Thursday, Carroll pointed behind him to the "Drug Epidemic Memorial Wall," a poster with pictures of roughly 150 New Jersey residents lost to addiction. He vowed to continue working to bring the number down, stating that the loss of life is unacceptable and noting three indictments his office brought in the county this year for "strict liability homicide" in cases where dealers sold drugs to people who later died from overdoses.
During Thursday’s ceremony, Sheriff Gannon also presented the Hope One service award to Caroline Bailey, who has been sober for the past ten years and is currently employed as a peer recovery specialist with Morris County Prevention is Key, an addiction treatment center in Rockaway.
"My heart is heavy today. There are so, so, so many people that I have personally lost. I will fight every day to continue to help people that are struggling with substance use," said an emotional Bailey.
Photo 1: A group gathered on the lawn of the Morris County Addiction Center off Central Avenue in Parsippany for Morris County’s 2023 Overdose Awareness Day event.
Photo 2: (l-r) Commissioner Deputy Director Myers, Carol Egan, State Sen. Bucco, Kathleen Hyland and Commissioner Smith.
Photo 3: Sheriff Gannon presents Caroline Bailey the Hope One service award.
Photo 4: Prosecutor Carroll addresses attendees at the event.