Erie County lost 156 people to opioid overdose deaths in 2019.
One of those dead was Ann Farren’s son, Kenneth Michael Farren.
“My son was 33 years old, he had a 12-year-old son when he died in October,” said Farren. “He battled addiction and mental illness for years. He was diagnosed with bipolar [disorder.] Great boy, hard worker, could fix anything, but his demons just beat him.”
Amid the global COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing recession, New York continues to battle another public health crisis: the opioid epidemic.
In three western New York counties, Niagara, Chautauqua, and Erie, officials reported an increase in overdose deaths since the pandemic.
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York and in honor of her son, Ann launched the Farren Foundation, which aims to end the cycle of addiction and substance use by providing counseling and support services to youth and family members.
“This isn’t the first person we’ve lost,” Ann said.
Kenneth died on October 1, 2019 – 12 years and 12 days after his father died of the same illness.
The cycle of generational addiction is nuanced. Research shows that it is both a matter of nurture and nature.
Several studies involving identical and fraternal twins, adoptees and siblings suggest that as much as half of a person’s risk of substance addiction comes from their genetic makeup, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
“This is our community, these are our children, these are people dying who shouldn’t die,” she said. “They have children and they have families.”
As of August 3, the province reports 48 opioid deaths and 134 suspected overdoses, according to data from the Erie County Opiate Epidemic Task Force 2020 Third Quarter Meeting.
If all those deaths are eventually confirmed from opioid overdose, the province will have surpassed last year’s figure with nearly five months left in the year.
Those deaths have been associated with an increase in fentanyl in drugs such as cocaine, coupled with isolation and other stressors from the pandemic, said Gale Burstein, Erie County Commissioner of Health at July 28 press conference.
Resources are available in the western community of New York, including access to free naloxone, the county’s 24-hour addiction hotline at 716-831-7007, medically assisted treatment, and more.
“The message today is check on your loved one, call them, just call them to say hello,” said Cheryll Moore, director of the opioid program for the Erie County Department of Health.
In addition, the province is working with Evergreen Health and their harm reduction model that offers free fentanyl test strips in western New York, Moore said.
Evergreen Health’s harm reduction model encourages those using substances to have a supply of naloxone on hand, start with a smaller amount, use a fentanyl test strip on their supply, and call a helpline such as Never Use Alone at 1 -800-484-3731 .
While a fentanyl test strip is helpful, it doesn’t test for all types of fentanyl analogs, Moore said. Substance use disorder is not a disease that an individual fights alone – it is a disease that is fought by the community and by mothers like Ann.
A few years ago, Ken was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was often frustrated when the medication didn’t work, Ann said.
But he was trying to stay sober and manage his mental health, she said.
And every life lost to this disease echoes throughout western New York.
“He was a son, he was a father, he was a brother, he was an uncle, he was a worker,” Ann said of her son. “He had the biggest heart in the whole world, but drugs just made him a different person.”
There’s hope: The county encourages trusting friends and family, never taking it alone, and learning how to take naloxone.
The province offers a 24/7 Addiction Hotline at 716-831-7007 and you can receive free naloxone by texting 716-225-5473.
For more information about the Farren Foundation, visit their website.
For more information about the Erie County Opiate Epidemic Task Force, visit their: website.