In 2020, North Carolina saw a ‘stark increase’ in overdose deaths

When Latasha McIlwaine began her career as a substance abuse counselor more than a decade ago, she was well aware of the problems posed by illegal drug use in Charlotte.

Street drugs including marijuana and cocaine were common among her patients, but in more recent years, she said, she has seen a alarming shift.

“Now you’re hearing other things like fentanyl and meth use,” said Mcilwaine, clinical director and owner of Insightful Options, a therapy/counseling service in Charlotte. “Now you’re having your regular street drugs being laced with other things, which is really causing a concern.” 

McIlwaine’s concerns mirror those of state health officials, who this week reported a 40% rise in overdose deaths in 2020. For the year, that came to 3,304 people dead, up from 2,352 in 2019.

On average, about nine people died each day in North Carolina from drug overdoses in 2020, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Moreover, the department reported more than 15,000 emergency department visits related to drug overdoses.

“A single life lost to an overdose is a life we should have saved,” state health Secretary Kody H. Kinsley said in a statement. “Stress, loss of housing and loss of employment for those in recovery caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has led to a backslide in our fight against substance use disorders.”

Kinsley said “improving behavioral health and resilience” is a top priority for her office.

While the death rate was lowest among Black resident, at 26.7 deaths per 100,000 people, that number rose 66% from 2019. In contrast, the white death rate in 2020 stood at 36.1 deaths per 100,000 people, a 32% increase from the previous year.

The state’s highest rate of overdose deaths occurred among Native American populations, which saw 83.6 deaths per 100,000 people –up 93% from 2019.

State health officials linked the overall rise to illicit opioids, such as heroin and fentanyl. In fact, fentanyl, often used in combination with other illegal drugs, accounted for more than 70% of the state’s overdose deaths in 2020. 

More than 60% of overdose deaths involved the use of multiple substances, and the use of stimulants, like cocaine and meth, were said to be rising.

To combat the state’s opioid epidemic, health officials in 2017 implemented the North Carolina Opioid and Substance Use Action Plan. The initiative includes a variety of resources and funding to support for community-based organizations working to address drug addiction.

Latasha McIllwaine Photo courtesy of McIlwaine

McIlwaine said the more Charlotte grows, the more drug abuse and overdose will become an issue. The trend, she said, has already impacted those in her facility.

“My Black patients are definitely being exposed to a lot more,” she told QCity Metro. “A lot of them have said that certain drugs have come into their community that were not there previously.”

The 2020 jump in overdose deaths was a “stark increase,” health officials said. In recent years, the overdose death rate in North Carolina had slowed significantly.

The Covid-19 pandemic may have reversed that trend. State and national health officials have reported pandemic-related increases in alcohol consumption, substance abuse, anxiety, depression and suicide ideation.

McIlwaine, meanwhile, has seen something else: more college-age patients coming to her center seeking help. And social media, she said, is partly to blame.

“The more technology-savvy we are, the more exposure this generation is getting to different drugs as well,” she said.

Get help: If you or someone you know is battling drug addiction, call the Hope4NC helpline at 1-855-587-3463. The helpline offers confidential emotional support, counseling referrals or connection to community resources.

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