Advocates of a multipronged attack on Suffolk’s opioid epidemic said Thursday they hope a Rocky Point forum next week will spur others to help end a crisis that led to more than 300 fatal overdoses in the county last year.
“How many of our loved ones, colleagues and neighbors do we need to lose before we demand action to be taken?” asked Gary Pollakusky, president of the North Shore Community Association, during a news conference to discuss the July 13 public forum at Rocky Point Middle School.
Joined by parents and families hit hard by addiction, Pollakusky listed three areas the forum will highlight — improving drug prevention curriculum in Suffolk schools, boosting drug enforcement and expanding treatment options for opioid addiction.
Tracey Farrell, who founded North Shore Drug Awareness after her son, Kevin Norris, died of an accidental overdose in 2012 at 26, attended the news conference along with others who’ve witnessed up close the devastation caused by opioids.
Farrell said after her son hurt his shoulder playing football at Miller Place High School, he had surgery in 2002 and doctors prescribed him Vicodin afterward. What started as standard painkilling treatment for Norris eventually took control of his life and then ended it.
“He wanted more,” Farrell said of Norris’ growing appetite for painkillers, “and that began his road [to] addiction.”
Her daughter has also struggled with addiction and has been in recovery for three years, Farrell said. By expanding prevention-education programs and starting them earlier, Farrell hopes schools can help “save the next generation.”
The opioid epidemic in Suffolk, Nassau and statewide is not new. In recent years it’s gained the attention of Albany legislators.
In 2014, the Assembly passed legislation mandating that schools incorporate heroin and opioid content into health education drug and alcohol curricula. In June 2016, the state Department of Education released a resource packet to provide guidance on how to teach students at different grade levels about heroin and other opioids.
Schools have the leeway to choose how to incorporate heroin- and opioid-related materials into their curricula, said Kym Laube, executive director of the Westhampton Beach-based Human Understanding and Growth Services, a substance abuse prevention program that serves Long Island.
That can lead to what her organization calls “one shot deals,” Laube said, such as guest speakers and school assemblies — efforts that fall short in educating K-12 students about the dangers of opioids.
Laube said educators need to “make substance-use prevention a priority” to see real long-term results.
“Schools that really embrace the inclusion of drug and alcohol prevention in their curricula . . . have better outcomes,” she said Thursday in a phone interview.
At Thursday’s news conference in Rocky Point, Anne Mattarella, a resident of the hamlet, held a photo collage of her son, Timothy Mertz, 29, who died of an overdose in 2015.
Mattarella said “something has to be done to scare these children” out of trying drugs. “They have to be stopped before it ever starts.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong location for Human Understanding and Growth Services, which is based in Westhampton Beach. The wrong date was also given for the release of a state Department of Education resource packet. It was released in June 2016.