It’s been almost eight years since Jennifer Webb lost her 19-year-old sister to suicide following a struggle with opioid addiction – and in that instant, her life and the lives of her family members changed forever.
Now Webb, a former state representative for Pinellas County, is honoring her sister’s legacy as the director of Project Opioid Tampa Bay. The initiative, formed by the Tampa Bay Partnership and funded by the Florida Blue Foundation, officially launched at a virtual meeting Friday morning. It aims to significantly reduce opioid overdoses and deaths by the end of 2025 through collaborative efforts between business, nonprofit and faith-based leaders.
“I’m confident that through this partnership, Project Opioid Tampa Bay will save lives,” said GuideWell and Florida Blue President and CEO Pat Geraghty. “Opioids don’t discriminate. They can destroy families, friendships and business relationships. It’s imperative that we all work together to find ways to help those in need so they can live their lives free from the grip of addiction.”
According to research commissioned by the Tampa Bay Partnership, the opioid epidemic in Tampa Bay has become even more of a crisis due to Covid-19 as people continue to experience unprecedented stress levels that can lead to drug abuse. In 2020, more than 1,200 residents died from opioid use, nearly 200 more than in 2019. Additionally, Tampa Bay’s opioid rate is 58 percent higher than the national average.
“When I heard that nearly three people die each day from opioid overdoses in Tampa Bay, it struck me so hard,” said Rick Homans, president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Partnership. “I also think about the family and friends who were part of their lives and their struggle and their death. That’s why each one of us has a personal stake in this epidemic.”
Statewide, the numbers are bleak as well.
“Prior to the pandemic, we were facing an uphill battle to stop opioid overdoses in Florida,” said Florida’s Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees, noting that Pinellas County led all counties in the number of emergency room visits for drug overdoses last year. “Today, as we’re beginning to recover from Covid-19 the state of opioid abuse is even more dire in our state.”
In the coming months, Project Opioid Tampa Bay team members will be doing more research on the regional impact of opioid abuse and working to identify the types of treatment and resources available within the community. They’ll then use that data to create targeted actions that will, ideally, create positive changes. However, the task won’t be an easy one and that’s largely due to the “terrible stigma” surrounding opioid addiction, Homans said.
“Sadly, when most people reach out desperately for help, they are oftentimes met with shame and scorn,” Homans said. “As more people struggle, our leaders must foster a culture of grace and compassion and offer a handoff for those in need.”
State Senator Darryl Rouson, who shared that he’s been clean for “23 years, two months and four days,” said that talking openly about addiction can go a long way to reducing the stigma.
“I decided in my own life to own it, to talk about it and to walk recovery with integrity,” he said. “We need to let those who are struggling know that they’re worthwhile human beings and that they’re deserving of recovery. All of us need to advocate, take action and get people help.”
Another challenging facet of opioid addiction is that it can be difficult to tell when someone is suffering from one, especially early on when signs like missing work or not returning phone calls can be seen as behavioral issues, according to Nick Dewan, the vice president for behavioral health at Florida Blue. Then, as time goes by and these problems get worse, it can become easier to see what might be happening.
“It’s important at that time to say ‘I noticed there’s been a change and that you’re having difficulty. Tell me what’s going on. I’m here to help,’” Dewan said.
However, one of the goals of Project Opioid Tampa Bay is to find ways to prevent this type of scenario from happening in the first place.
“Prevention is multifaceted and it needs to start with educating the community to understand the signs and symptoms of this illness,” said Linda McKinnon, CEO at Central Florida Behavioral Health Network. “I also think it’s really important to start early. If there is a child who has depression or anxiety at the age of 11 or 12 and we don’t address it, the likelihood of them self medicating by the age of 13 is very, very high. We have to do in-school prevention and we need parents to become educated and have a talk with their children about these issues.”
Webb, who shared fond memories of her sister and called her “the glue of our family,” is hopeful that Project Opioid Tampa Bay will lead to progress in the battle against opioid addiction.
“I would do anything to spare others the devastation of losing a friend or a family member,” she said. “We were too late to save my sister and my family is not alone. There are 130 families each and every day in the United States who lose a loved one to a fatal opioid overdose. That’s 130 families broken every day. How can we not act?”