MORRIS COUNTY — With heart-wrenching personal stories, parents who lost loved-ones to overdoses and recovering addicts today joined Morris County and state officials, as well as nonprofit groups to observe International Overdose Awareness Day, as drug related deaths continued to surge around the nation.
The annual event, observed worldwide for 21 years to focus on the lives lost to drug deaths, was recognized during a ceremony on the lawn of the Morris County Addiction Center off Central Avenue, in Parsippany, where Morris County planted a weeping cherry tree in 2020 to mark the county’s inaugural recognition of the day.
Among those who talked of struggling with addiction and a need for understanding in the community were Mark and Maria Broadhurst of Long Valley, who lost a son to addiction and opened a nonprofit in his name, “Joshua’s Peace,” to advocate for support, treatment, prevention and to help others struggling with addiction.
“On December 6, 2019, a day before my birthday and what was supposed to be a special weekend of celebration, our son, Joshua, the oldest of our five children, died from accidental overdose. I say accidental overdose because we know he wanted to live. We know he fought his addiction hard. We know more than anything else in his 24 years, his family was the most important thing in his life,” Maria Broadhurst said in a tearful speech.
Both Broadhursts said the public must understand that addiction is a disease that can be overcome, that people with problems must know they can ask for help and that the road to recovery is hard, but it is not impossible.
“Unless you are wearing these shoes yourself, struggling with addiction, you have no idea,” said Mark Broadhurst, holding up a pair of red sneakers that were Joshua’s favorite footwear. “You can’t truly understand how devastating, how all-encompassing and life-threatening this disease is. If we are going to help our children and those struggling, we must never forget this fact.”
Overdose deaths spiked again across the nation in 2021, hitting 107,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That marks another record high, with records being set nearly every year for the past decade.
“Abuse and addiction doesn’t have to end in tragedy. Help is available and effective. The message must be for those wrestling with demons: Do not give up. Talk to somebody. Get help. Utilized the support of your friends, family and loved ones,” said State Senator Anthony M. Bucco, who moderated the event.
His office hosted the ceremony with Morris County Commissioners Tayfun Selen and Deborah Smith, Morris County Sheriff James M. Gannon, members of the Morris County Department of Human Services, Brad Seabury of the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office and Assemblywoman Aura Dunn.
Morris County Commissioner Director Selen noted the national death toll due to overdose appears unabated, despite an increase in awareness, education and programs.
“What troubles me today, however, is that our nation seems to be accepting this terrible toll as a fact of life – and I am not sure why,” said Director Tayfun Selen.
He cited two Pew Research surveys released this year, one showing the number of Americans who say drug addiction is a major problem in their local community dropped from 42 percent in 2018 to 35 percent last year. It also showed that decline in concern is even in areas where overdose deaths are highest.
“This is terrible to learn, my friends, because when our fellow Americans no longer care, how can we expect our federal government to care. A separate Pew study this year showed that dealing with drug addiction ranked lowest out of 18 priorities for the President and Congress to address this year,” Selen explained. “Now, I know we have a lot of problems to solve in America. We live in tough times. But I think the death of more than 107,000 friends, neighbors and family members each year to overdoses should at least be among America’s top 10 national concerns.”
Cheryl Semiz, Frances Harrington and Michael Dickerson, all recovering addicts, spoke to the Overdose Awareness Day gathering of nearly 100 people about turning from their personal struggles toward helping others to overcome addiction. Each also explained how they lost friends to overdoses and have watched others become addicted.
But Sheriff Gannon offered some hope, noting the news is not all dismal. Morris County’s community response over the years to addiction, through numerous nonprofits and county programs such as Hope One, Navigating Hope and a “Stigma Free” campaigns, appears to have had some impact, although tragic overdoses continue.
“As of right now in Morris County, we’ve had 71 suspected fatal overdoses so far this year –that’s a 16 percent decrease,” the Sheriff said. “We’ve had a decrease in suicides and a decrease in fatal overdoses. It could change on a dime … But we’ve also seen an increase in the number of calls for service to our police officers for emotionally disturbed persons and mental illness. I have to believe that there is something going on.”
However, nationally the problem is increasing.
“Twenty-three and a half million individuals across our nation are in need of addiction treatment for alcohol and drugs – 23-1/2 million. Unfortunately, only around 11 percent of those individuals struggling with the disease of addiction will seek treatment. Eleven percent,” said Brad Seabury, Chief Assistant Prosecutor in Morris County. “That is why we are seeing the deaths that we are seeing in this nation and why so much of that is because of the stigma associated with this disease … I would suggest to you that it is the barrier to us beating this and we have an obligation to tear down that stigma.”
On the state level, New Jersey overdose deaths had been increasing until this year, although there are four months yet to go.
“Overdose deaths are higher than ever before in New Jersey, increasing by more than six percent – 204 more lost lives. Emergency room visits for substance abuse disorders increased nearly 30 percent,” said Assemblywoman Dunn. “For those loved ones who must live on with the pain, today we have the opportunity to turn that pain into purpose.”
New Jersey confirmed 2,914 drug overdoses in 2019, compared to 3,050 suspected drug overdose deaths in 2020 and 3,124 suspected overdose deaths in 2021. However, to date, the Office of the Chief State Medical Examiner lists 1,894 suspected overdose death, putting the state on track to actually have a decline for 2022.