Saleem and Ivy Hilton perform a libation ceremony for those who have died from drug overdoses. (Robert R. Roberts/The Washington Informer)
Saleem and Ivy Hilton perform a libation ceremony for those who have died from drug overdoses. (Robert R. Roberts/The Washington Informer)

Throughout the month of September in the U.S., health advocates lead efforts to increase awareness about opioids, propelling local organizations to hold related events, provide resources, and facilitate dialogue about the rising number of opioid overdoses nationwide.  

Here in the District, the Health Alliance Network and its partners sponsored a gathering on Aug. 31 at THEARC Black Box Theater in Southeast, speaking life, power and hope for recovery for D.C. residents suffering in silence from the impact of opioid addiction.  

In 2022, there have been a reported 1,942 non-fatal overdoses with 163 overdoses ending in fatal results. The numbers disproportionately represent Blacks with 84% of all opioid-caused deaths this year. 

Leaders from the Department of Behavioral Health (DBH) spoke candidly about the layered approach to drug addiction recovery. 

“So many people, especially in communities of color, have associated shame and personal guilt to this problem [but] it affects everybody regardless of socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, gender – you name it,” said DBH Deputy Director of Adult & Transitional Youth Services Dr. Jean Moise.  

“So, we want to educate people about the problem, give them hope for recovery and let them know what the resources are in the community where they can go to get help, not only from professionals but from people who have lived through the experience,” Dr. Moise said. “It’s a lifelong recovery journey.”

Moise also highlighted the aggressive combination of struggling family structures, systemic racism embedded within the city’s infrastructure and rampant levels of fragile mental health conditions among drug users. 

One local drug recovery advocate and opioid addiction survivor, Rhonda Johnson, shared her experience – one difficult for many to understand unless they’ve somehow been touched by addiction. 

Johnson said many of those in the “grandparent generation” who struggled during the height of the crack cocaine era now count among those impacted by opioid addiction today. But she contends that the next generation serves as a powerful force that can lead the healing process. 

“Because so many crack babies were abandoned, molested, raped, tortured and didn’t have a reliable family structure, a lot of them didn’t know how to be parents to their grandchildren,” she said. “Those children, the K2 generation, are the lost generation. But they must become the generation of authority – the change agents we need.” 

Moise said a more concerted effort must occur to help residents succeed in recovery. 

“We have an epidemic in this country, especially in large urban areas including D.C.,” Dr. Moise said. “It requires a concerted effort [from] government providers, legislators and the community to get a handle on it.  I think one of the important things we can do is to recognize the problem itself. The value of International Overdose Awareness Day) is that it calls us to remember the people we’ve lost as it’s important to share the grief of the community. That grief promotes and spurs action which is vital.” 

In upcoming articles about the opioid crisis, we will hear more from DBH officials and community members as they further examine some of the deeper layers of mental health and the addiction crisis in D.C.

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