The public is invited to attend, “Community Conversation: Heroin Epidemic,” on July 26 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Community members and experts on addiction and substance abuse will lead the conversation on the opioid and heroin epidemic in the Roanoke Valley. The event will take place at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and Research Institute. Refreshments will be served at 6:30 p.m.

More people die of drug overdoses than car accidents. There’s a nationwide opioid and heroin epidemic, and it’s in our own backyard. The Roanoke Valley Heroin Task Force has called for a community conversation to combat addiction and prevent further deaths.

The summit will take place on July 26, from 7 to 8:30 p.m., at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, and feature experts and those directly affected by addiction and substance abuse.

“Addiction is treated as an acute problem, but it’s a chronic disease,” said Warren Bickel, the director of the Addiction Recovery Research Center at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute and the inaugural Virginia Tech Carilion Behavioral Health Research Professor. Bickel is also among the foremost drug abuse researchers in the United States. “We need to change how we think about addiction to better help treat it and support those in recovery.”

At Carilion Clinic, the number of people seeking treatment for drug overdoses in the emergency room has increased across the board. 

“That’s the hardest piece to communicate to parents and folks in the community; to get them to believe that this can happen to them; this can happen to their children; and that they have to really be aware,” said John Burton, the chair of Carilion Clinic’s emergency department, who noted that opioid and heroin addiction can often start with leftover pain pills stored in a medicine cabinet. “It doesn’t matter what your walk of life is, education levels, socio-economic standing – opioid addiction cuts across all those demographics and can affect everyone.”

Virginia is one of 11 states with such a significant increase in the rate of death from drug overdoses. Roanoke Valley is one of four major hubs in Virginia with high overdose rates, along with Northern Virginia, Richmond, and Virginia Beach.

“To defeat this epidemic, we must change our culture; we must change the way we look at pain and medication; we must change the way we look at medications in our home and the medication we receive from doctors,” said Tom Bowers, the city of Salem’s commonwealth’s attorney and the chair of the Roanoke Valley Heroin Task Force. “We must look at our family members, especially our young adults, and monitor their response to surgeries and injuries when pain medication is prescribed. Addiction to pain medication is leading to heroin and fentanyl, and the use of heroin and fentanyl is leading to destruction and death.”

Bowers will speak at the community summit, as will Ashley Haynes and Janine Underwood. Haynes, a 28-year-old Roanoke resident, is a member of the age group most affected by the epidemic. Underwood lost her son, Bobby, to an overdose just a year ago.

Along with the community conversation, efforts are underway to launch the Roanoke Valley HOPE Initiative.

“Substance use disorders are a chronic medical disease that is deadly but treatable, and where there is treatment there is HOPE,” said Cheri Hartman, a psychiatrist at Carilion Clinic and a senior instructor at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. Together, the Roanoke Valley HOPE Initiative and the community conversation are serving as a model for the epidemic hubs to help combat their addiction problems.

Michael Friedlander, the executive director of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute and Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology, will also offer remarks at the community conversation.

“The Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute is very pleased to host this summit – opiate addiction is a major national and local health problem,” Friedlander said. “However, through scientifically rigorous research into how the brain becomes addicted, it is a challenge that can be met. But we first need to bring the voices of individuals and families who are impacted, health-care providers, researchers, and political leadership together for meaningful dialogue.”

The Roanoke Valley Heroin Task Force has issued a call to action with the HOPE Initiative and the community conversation: We need to combat addiction, and we need help to do it.

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