After losing her son, David, to a drug overdose in 2015, Rhonda Coffey knew she couldn’t let his legacy fade.
“Even with his disease,” which began with prescription pain killers after he shattered his ankle at age 22, “he was larger than life,” she said.
In Tennessee, deaths from the opioid crisis are at an all-time high; according to recently released Department of Health statistics, 1,776 people in the state suffered fatal overdoses in 2017.
When the Addiction Policy Forum launched a campaign in 2015 to bring awareness to the number of people dying from overdoses each day, Coffey, of East Tennessee, submitted her son’s story.
Now, after founding her own nonprofit, The Addict’s Family, Coffey has become the Addiction Policy Forum’s Tennessee state chapter chair.
According to their website, the nonprofit, which partners with the drug industry, is “a diverse partnership of organizations, policymakers and stakeholders committed to working together to elevate awareness around addiction and to improve national policy through a comprehensive response that includes prevention, treatment, recovery and criminal justice reform.”
Their resource center, which just expanded to include Tennessee, also provides a guide to local rehabilitation centers.
“You can do a lot, you can change individuals, but if you’re going to be part of the greater change, sometimes you have to have bigger help,” Coffey explained. “I knew I needed to partner with the larger voice.”
For her, the involvement is bittersweet.
“We could have really used the resources that are becoming available now,” she said.
Even so, “There’s not really a lot in the area I live in Tennessee [Sullivan County], even now.
There are five facilities and addiction health specialists listed in Williamson County. In Davidson County, there are 39 listed health practitioners and facilities.
The biggest misconception about addiction that Coffey sees is that, “Everyone thinks that they just go out and choose to be this way.”
A genetic piece dictates who is more likely to become addicted, and, as Coffey noted, addiction runs in families. “It doesn’t discriminate by age, race, socioeconomics,” she said. “Nobody would have thought.”
Another problem she and others encounter is a rehabilitation system that preys upon families hopeful for their loved one’s recovery; many facilities don’t even have medical professionals on staff. She said patients even used the illicit drugs they were supposed to be detoxing from in one sober living home her son stayed at.
“This crippling epidemic has become something so lucrative for people to take advantage of others,” she said.
Still, “I see a lot of things that feel hopeful,” she said, including the uptick in law enforcement officers armed with Narcan, an overdose reversal spray.
In Knox County, where her son died, Coffey commended the judicial branch for prosecuting drug dealers, while acknowledging the need to rehabilitate inmates, many of whom are mentally ill or addicts, across the state.
“I feel hopeful that we’re going to get there,” she said, noting Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent budgetary provisions to combat the crisis. “As long as we keep lines of communication open.”
Click here to see a list of resources by county in Tennessee.