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People impacted by overdoses share stories after pandemic caused drug deaths to skyrocket

“Addicts don't do very well sitting by themselves with their own thoughts for months at a time. They say that the opposite of addiction is connection, and I find that really to be true.”

A man in a gray hooded sweatshirt and baseball cap
Brad Mahar, in downtown Fargo on Feb. 17, 2022, is a Fargo Cass Public Health employee is in recovery from opioid addiction.
Chris Flynn / The Forum
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FARGO — Brad Mahar said his story is similar to others who have become addicted to drugs.

He grew up with a supportive family and had a great childhood.

Then, back problems started in high school. When he got to college, he said he was put on high doses of opiate pain medication. Eventually, depression of not being able to do what he loved led to addiction, he said.

“I realized very quickly that I was going down that rabbit hole and had no idea how to stop it,” he said.

He left college after finishing his freshman year in 2013. The next year, he sought help from a doctor but found few available resources and treatment options.

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“The nearest inpatient program was two hours away and had a six-week-long waiting list,” he said.

His medication became too expensive to afford, so in 2014, he turned to a cheaper drug: heroin.

“Nobody ever grows up thinking that they're going to become an addict of any sort,” he said.

Mahar said he didn’t overdose, but he had a close brush. He purchased heroin one night, unaware it contained fentanyl. He said he was robbed, and the person who took his drugs overdosed on them in front of him.

A friend who got the same drugs died using them, as well, he said.

Mahar believes he would have died alone at his home if he used the drugs.

“Seeing that and witnessing how strong it was literally saved my life,” he said.

He went into rehab in 2018 and is in recovery.

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Mahar said he has lost more than 20 people he knew to drug overdoses, which is why he started his own nonprofit in July 2018. North Dakota Harm Reduction Alliance provides free harm reduction supplies such as naloxone and needles to anyone in the state.

He also works as the harm reduction advocate at Fargo Cass Public Health and does mobile outreach with the Gladys Ray Shelter.

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The last two years have been especially hard on the recovery community, he said. Overdoses skyrocketed during the coronavirus pandemic, far surpassing deaths reported in 2017.

That year, when then-President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency, the U.S. recorded more than 70,000 overdose deaths, two-thirds of which involved opioids, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Overdose deaths ballooned to nearly 92,000 in 2020, the CDC said. Statistics suggest 2021 deaths could top 100,000, and 75% are expected to involve opioids.

In North Dakota, 156 people died from an overdose last year, according to the state health department. That was down slightly from 168 in 2020, but the year the pandemic started brought a 50% increase over 2019.

“This was an unfathomable problem before, and it has exploded beyond what anybody could ever imagine,” Mahar said.

From doctors and CEOS to those who struggle with homelessness, people from all walks of life can struggle with addiction, Mahar said. And it doesn’t just impact those who have become addicted.

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Economically, substance use costs the U.S. more than $600 billion annually, the National Institute on Drug Abuse said. People who have lost loved ones fall into addiction themselves, Mahar said.

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“It's heartbreaking watching parents lose their 22-year-old kid, or, on the flip side, it's heartbreaking seeing this 8-year-old girl lose her mom,” he said.

Fargo-Moorhead is a close-knit community, and an overdose death can be felt throughout, Fargo Cass Public Health prevention coordinator Robyn Litke Sall said.

“It’s something that is really painful for loved ones,” she said, “especially when the person is really young, and they could have had so much potential or are missing out on so much that they could have experienced in life.”

Everyone has a responsibility to educate themselves on substance use and addiction, as well as support those on any path to recovery, said Chandler Esslinger, a community health specialist at Essentia Health who works with the Red River Recovery Initiative.

“I also don't believe that we should have to have a personal experience in order to care,” Esslinger said. “Any person suffering who has turned to addiction and substance use to cope is deserving of dignity and respect and care.”

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Numbers for total overdose deaths in Minnesota were unavailable.

Navigating abnormal times

Last year, the Fargo Police Department responded to 136 calls labeled as overdoses, 23 of which were fatal.

That’s up from 91 calls in 2020 with 18 deaths, 36 calls in 2019 with 11 fatalities, and 70 calls in 2016 with 15 deaths. Last year surpassed the death record reported by the Fargo Police Department in 2017, which was 20.

As of Feb. 24, Fargo police responded to 11 overdoses, and no one had died.

In Moorhead, at least eight people died from an overdose last year, according to the Moorhead Police Department. The death count tied the record set in 2020.

Overdose calls, 63, tripled in 2021 compared to 2020, breaking the 2016 record of 24. There were five in 2019.

It’s hard to know exactly how many overdoses happen in the Fargo-Moorhead area, as they are not always reported.

The increase has been tied to the coronavirus pandemic for a number of reasons nationally, Litke Sall said. Essential services may have closed or modified their offerings, making access difficult during the pandemic, she said. Others may have feared getting the virus, so they avoided facilities that could offer help, she said.

Then there was the stress and isolation that came with the pandemic, Mahar said.

“Addicts don't do very well sitting by themselves with their own thoughts for months at a time,” Mahar said. “They say that the opposite of addiction is connection, and I find that really to be true.”

Some people may have been alone due to social distancing when they overdosed, Litke Sall added. That means no one was there to intervene.

Addiction can be a method for handling abnormal situations, Esslinger said. The pandemic brought on social isolation, economic instability, loss, trauma and other factors that can contribute to drug use and addiction, she said.

“We've all been navigating a significantly abnormal environment over the last two years,” she said. “We all know that the pandemic has brought increased rates of stress, uncertainty and instability for many people.”

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Adam Melle
Submitted by family

‘Not a number’

Adam Melle was adventurous and loved sports, his family said.

“He was my everything,” said his mother, Beth Anderson of Moorhead.

The 2009 Fargo South High School graduate was exposed to opioids in high school, according to Forum archives. His mother described him dealing with her divorce to his father and depression.

He moved to Arizona with his father and stepmother, in part to get away from drug contacts. There, he started using heroin.

Anderson said she didn’t know how bad her son’s addiction was, and there wasn’t much she could do from her home in the Red River Valley.

Melle was able to get treatment, but that became too costly, Anderson said. He was kicked out after five weeks, she said.

Less than 24 hours later, Melle’s body was found Feb. 19, 2016. He was 25 years old.

“It’s like my heart was being stabbed,” she said of learning about his death.

Anderson said her family wanted to be transparent about Melle’s death, but there was also a feeling of shame and blame from others.

“They were looking at Adam as his addiction, not as Adam for the wonderful person that he is,” she said. “He’s not his addiction.”

One of the hardest things she said she dealt with was calling a coroner’s office in Arizona. Staff there told her she had to refer to Melle by a number so they could release his body to his father, she said.

“I screamed into the phone that my son is not a number,” she said.

Failing to treat mental illness and addiction imposes huge costs, and investments in behavioral health are "fiscally conservative," according to a Republican leader in the North Dakota Legislature.

‘Trying to survive’

There have been positive changes in recent years, including awareness and the willingness to be more open and honest about drug addiction, Anderson said.

“Back then, people didn’t talk about it,” she said.

Addiction isn’t a reflection of a person’s moral character or ability to be resilient, Esslinger said.

“It’s not a personal failure,” she said. “Individuals who are struggling with substance use and addiction are not, you know, they're not inherently doing something wrong. They're trying to survive.”

Studies have shown stigma is a top reason for not seeking treatment, Litke Sall said.

Before 2020, more money and resources seemed available, and more people were focusing on the opioid epidemic, Anderson said.

“I really felt like things were going to get better,” Anderson said, “Then the pandemic just slammed so many doors shut.”

The pandemic needed a lot of attention, but that in turn took attention away from other health needs, particularly addiction response, Litke Sall said.

“Unfortunately, we're seeing a lot of unintended consequences,” she said. “This is definitely one of those unintended consequences, the significant increase in overdose and overdose death.”

Despite the cutback in resources during the pandemic, Mahar's division ramped up services to check in on those who needed them, he said.

“The biggest focus is keeping them alive until they are ready (to seek help), because at the end of the day, that is somebody’s brother, sister, mother, father,” he said.

MORE COVERAGE OF THE OVERDOSE CRISIS
Overall overdose deaths in the county are projected to drop 8% this year, according to numbers presented Monday, Sept. 20, at the Fargo City Commission by Robyn Litke Sall, the substance abuse prevention coordinator at Fargo Cass Public Health. That’s a drastic change from the 55% jump in drug fatalities from 2019 to 2020.

Hope

Fargo Cass Public Health has been luckier than some parts of the country and state in having resources available, Litke Sall said. In October, it received $297,950 in federal funding.

The Fargo Harm Reduction Center served 929 individuals last year, up from 717 in 2020 and 494 in 2019. Naloxone saved 459 lives in 2021, more than double than in 2019 and 2020, according to the center’s self-reported numbers.

Litke Sall said she is happy that many people were helped but also saddened so many needed the services. Local statistics seem to show the need for those services leveling off or decreasing, she said, possibly signaling a more hopeful future with fewer overdoses.

Determining the root causes of addiction, including homelessness and poverty, is important in fighting substance abuse, Esslinger said.

“I think that if we can focus on some of those main root causes and help address those, that will alleviate a lot of the stress and uncertainty that leads people to engage in substance use,” she said.

Anderson’s family started the Chandler I Am Project to help bring awareness to opioid addiction and recovery resources. She doesn’t want to see other families go through what hers did.

Litke Sall said she wants people to be aware of overdose signs and how they may be inadvertently contributing to misuse. Mahar asked people to check on those who they know struggle, adding the pandemic has been tough on them.

Some people have told Anderson that Adam’s story helped them with their own struggles. She said she wanted those who struggle with addiction to know it doesn’t discriminate, but there is always someone who cares about them.

It’s important to show them there is hope, she said.

“There's always people that will go out of their way to help,” Anderson said.

If you need help

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has a national helpline that offers free, confidential treatment referral and information service for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders. The 24/7 number is 800-662-4357. The Fargo Harm Reduction Center can be contacted at 701-298-6982.

April Baumgarten joined The Forum in February 2019 as an investigative reporter. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, N.D., where her family raises Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at the University of Jamestown, N.D.
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