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On International Overdose Awareness Day, Berkshire County faces yet another year of rising overdose deaths

Josh Landes

Today is International Overdose Awareness Day. In Berkshire County, it’s a reminder that the region continues to see overdose deaths climb year after year.

Last year, a crowd gathered in the heart of Pittsfield, Massachusetts to light 56 candles for those lost to overdoses in 2020 — a steep increase over 2019’s 39 deaths. This year, the ceiling has been raised again with the highest number of recorded overdoses in Berkshire County in the past decade.

“In 2021, there were 62 overdoses in Berkshire County. And of course, I always say those are documented overdoses. There's probably some that maybe we don't know about or weren't documented, for whatever reason. 33 of which were in the city of Pittsfield. So that's a pretty staggering number," said Julie MacDonald, the director of Living In Recovery, a peer-led recovery center for those experiencing or impacted by substance use disorder. “There continues to be an increase in Berkshire County in overdoses, in spite of many of the things that we're trying to do to- not just us, but you know, harm reduction, all of that, and trying to do to help to curb the amount of overdoses. But this really is an epidemic that is affecting everyone.”

MacDonald and others working on the frontlines of the Berkshire overdose epidemic met with WAMC in the Living In Recovery offices in downtown Pittsfield to talk about what International Overdose Awareness Day means for a community struggling to tamp down an ever-growing crisis.

“We have tremendous resources in the county already, and the work that is being done by Berkshire Health Systems, by [the Brien Center], by House of Corrections, by the treatment recovery providers are extraordinary. And the people that I've met here are- I was doing this work for 12 years in the city of New York, and the people that I've met here, the commitment, the time, the passion that they put into this is beyond anything that I've ever seen. That said, especially this year, it was incredibly disheartening for us to see that overdose deaths still went up by 11% despite all of this extraordinary work across multiple sectors. So we're continuing to push, continuing to fight," said Andy Ottoson of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, who oversees the Berkshire Overdose Addiction Prevention Collaborative. From fentanyl appearing in the local cocaine supply to getting Narcan in the hands of drug users, Ottoson says Berkshire County faces a serious and rising challenge.

“One of the biggest challenges that we're seeing here in the Berkshires is that we have these tremendous resources that have continued to grow despite the pandemic. We're finding that there's not as much community awareness as we would like," said Ottoson. "We are especially hearing that they're still kind of the perception out there from many folks that if you want to get started on treatment or on medication-assisted therapy that there might be a two week or a six month waitlist to get started. That's not true. You can get started, if you want to get started on buprenorphine or methadone today, or any other sort of treatment, you have multiple providers, multiple options. They'll see you right now, they'll get you started today. So a lot of our focus is on that public education and awareness- Especially, not only people who are actively using, but especially their friends and families, just to be like, you have options, you have choices, let's get started.”

MacDonald says Berkshire County still has gaps to fill in its support network for those grappling with substance use disorders.

“We have outpatient places, we have halfway houses, but do we have something in place so that when people complete a 30 day, a 60 day, a 90 day program that they have structures in place, meaning aftercare, meaning not just a counselor to go to, but do they have marketable job skills? Do they have the support of that? Do they know how to take care of their own home? Have they lost their children? Are they getting their children back? Do they have the systems in place to support that, to support them in their parenting to to be able to help them with their trauma background?” she said.

Ultimately, MacDonald says that substance use disorder and overdose deaths are byproducts of broader systemic failures.

“We have failed in meeting the needs of people who are impoverished," she told WAMC. "We failed in meeting educational needs of people, especially those who are impoverished or people of color or what have you. And the system just continues to break apart because of that.”

Overdose Awareness Day was also marked in Connecticut, where Governor Ned Lamont and other leaders gathered in Hartford:

“There's treatment, there's prevention, we're doing everything we can in order to be there for each and every one of your loved ones,” said Lamont.

If you or someone you know is experiencing substance use disorder, you can call the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration hotline at 1-800-662-HELP.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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