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00000176-e6f7-dce8-adff-f6f770410000PublicSource is an independent, nonprofit news group that focuses on original investigative reporting about critical issues facing Pittsburgh and the Western Pennsylvania region. It was launched to undertake in-depth reporting in the public interest.PublicSource is a content partner of 90.5 WESA.More about PublicSource here.

Heroin Addiction: The Complex Epidemic Touches All Communities

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In 2014, heroin addiction and overdose deaths became an epidemic across the country, across the state of Pennsylvania and especially in Allegheny County.

Dr. Neil Capretto, Medical Director of Gateway Rehabilitation Center says the high rate of overdoses in southwest PA can be tied to use of prescription medicines, along with a blue collar and aging demographic.

"There was a need for pain medicines and doctor's started prescribing it and pharmaceutical companies started marketing to doctors heavily. And they were giving the message, 'This is safe, not addicting. Less than one percent of people who ever use Oxicodon ever have a problem.' That was the message from the companies. So there was a lot of prescription medicines, very heavy in our community. Then thousands of people in every town from Kittanning, to Downtown Pittsburgh, to Clarion, to Washington PA got hooked onto prescription medicines, and that led to the heroine problem."

Capretto explains that as an addiction to legal prescription opiates develops, heroin emerges as a cheaper alternative, once refills run out. But addiction is not simply about the relief of physical pain.

Capretto says he considers addiction to be a biological, psychological, social, and even spiritual disease. 

"Opioids are very good at stopping and blocking pain; physical pain, emotional pain, psychic pain... I've talked with thousands of people with addiction over the years and I never met one who started using any drug because they wanted to intentionally add more problems to their life on purpose. They're trying to solve some problem, block some pain."

A Coordinated Effort to Cover the Complexities of Heroin Addiction

As news of the increasing number of heroin overdoses has made headlines throughout Pennsylvania, newsrooms are making a coordinated effort to cover the most important angles of this public health crisis.

Sharon Walsh, editor of the investigative journalism organization PublicSource, has been compiling the work of PA media outlets that have been reporting on the heroin problem.

"I think we're learning every day about this problem. We get phone calls from people saying, you need to cover this story or that story," says Walsh.

"There are so many stories still to be done, there are stories about drug courts and I think a third of the counties in Pennsylvania have special drug courts. Instead of just putting people in jail, they send them to treatment. There is the issue of methadone and what are the pluses and minuses of using methadone. Most of the time we see coverage of people who are addicted and I think there is a certain stereotype to them. We forget that there are also professionals that are addicted."

For ongoing stories about the heroin epidemic, follow the PublicSource project site Heroin: Riding the Rush.