Putting a face on the opioid crisis II: What we learned

Ms. Perry Pschierer shares concerns regarding treatment of those who use opioids. Class members share responses. See our related story on Justin’s life.


Ms. Ginny Perry-Pschierer talks to students in the Journalism class about the loss of her son and the stigma of opioid addiction.

After the death of her son, Justin, in September 2016, Ms. Ginny Perry-Pschierer has been educating herself and others about the problems of opioids. She has opened our eyes to the problem and has made us want to educate others as well. In early December, the Journalism class interviewed Ms. Perry-Pschierer about the death of her son, as well as about the opioid crisis.

First of all, she said, “We need to rethink addiction….More and more studies are showing that addiction is a disease.” The brain chemistry you were born with, she pointed out, can determine whether you could be prone to addiction.” Sometimes it’s those in the medical profession who prescribe “highly addictive opioids,” and it’s the patient’s brain that responds with something like, “Wow, I really like this. This is what I’ve been looking for.” That feeling of reward can be the start of addiction.

The problem, says Ms. Perry-Pschierer, is that most people don’t see drug addicts as vulnerable. Instead, there are stereotypical images of drug users: “We talk about addicts as if they are junkies and losers.” One student pointed out that people are often told to stay away from addicts, instead of doing something to help them. Ms. Perry-Pschierer compared addicts to the “Untouchables” in ancient India; just associating with them is considered wrong. She suggested ways to help stop the problem of addictions, and she gave us a different point of view regarding how we should see addicts.

Ms. Perry-Pschierer said she believes that it is “important to put a face to this epidemic.” She shares Justin’s story, she says, in order to encourage people to support those who become addicted to opioids. She said she hopes that, by using the face and life story of her beloved son, she can convince more people to feel an emotional urge to help stop this epidemic. She and her husband, Todd Pschierer, have advocated both locally and at the state level, in Albany, for more funding of recovery programs.

One of her main concerns is that the level of care for those who overdose is nowhere near where it should be. “We need to treat these people who’ve overdosed, as if they’ve committed suicide.” In class she told us that, as she found out after his death, one time Justin was found in his car, potentially ready to die of a overdose. Someone saw him and called the ambulance. The ambulance gave him “Narcan,” which instantly reverses the effects of opioids, and then took him to the hospital. After treating him at the hospital, staff released him. However, they only gave him a warning to stop using addictive drugs. Such treatment, she says, speaks of lack of understanding of the power of the disease.

If hospitals could treat addicts who overdose as if they are people who have attempted suicide, then the picture would be very different. When people try to commit suicide, she noted, they are taken into a hospital and they stay there until they have been deemed fit to be released. They are also given contacts such as therapists to help them out. “There would be a plan. There would be a protocol.” The fact that her son overdosed on drugs, and the hospital did not release him with a long-term plan, raises the question of: What if? Treating overdoses like attempts at suicide would give people a chance to change, she argues.

Ms. Perry-Pschierer said she also wishes to change the treatment of addicts, who are denied help if they don’t qualify right away for treatment. These people, who do need help right away, are often put on a waiting list. What is an addict going to do while their on the waiting list? she asked, comparing this treatment to the treatment of another disease: “We don’t deny someone with diabetes treatment, right?” Ms. Perry-Pschierer asked the class. At the same time, “We don’t help people with addiction.”

Students in the class that interviewed Ms. Perry-Pschierer about the loss of her son to an opioid addiction not only wrote and reported on the interview, but also had a chance to reflect on and respond to what was being said.
What struck many students in class, in addition to the tragedy and sadness of a young life lost, was Ms. Perry-Pschierer’s and her husband’s efforts to raise consciousness regarding policies that seem to blame or ignore the victim of addiction.

Here are some excerpts from class responses to the visit:

The interview with Ms. Perry-Pschierer was eye-opening. She told us, “It’s important to put a face to this epidemic,” to bring attention to it, and make people realize how bad it really is. The opioid crisis is more serious than the AIDS crisis, she noted, pointing out that, at its peak, in 1995, the AIDS crisis claimed 48,371 lives. With the opioid crisis, 64,000 people died in 2016, according to the Center for Disease Control, as reported in The New York Times (“The First Count of Fentanyl Deaths in 2016: Up 540% in Three Years,” Sept. 2, 2017) — Heather Ashton

When she said, “But they should treat these people who’ve overdosed… as if they’ve attempted suicide,” I entirely agree with her….If they treated [overdosing] like an attempt at suicide, then maybe the addicts could get better. – Hanna Cavicchioli

When Ms. Perry-Pschierer said that addiction is a medical disease, I felt surprised because I didn’t know addiction is a disease as well as an epidemic that is worse than the AIDS crisis was. I’ve learned that, “doctors prescribe highly addictive opioids,” to which people can become addicted. This interview makes me take addictions more seriously, as I now know addicts don’t have too much choice. – Sylvia Hudak

When Mrs. Perry-Pschierer talked to us, I learned a lot about the life of someone who has been greatly affected by an overdose….I understand how Justin’s life and mental issues led him into a state of needing drugs. The way she talked about him was so admirable; she saw him as so worthy of her love, and she helped him. — Allie Beamish

I never really thought about the solution of having hospitals treat overdoses like attempted suicide. Instead of just stabilizing a patient who has overdosed and then sending him or her home, [the hospitals could] keep the person longer and create a plan of action to help them long term. — Jillian Galanti

When Ms. Perry-Pschierer described her son and talked about how dedicated he was to his work, it made me feel sad…and bad for her. When she said, ¨Many addicts have mental health issues,¨ it made me concerned for others out there who are struggling like Justin. We should be helping these people with diseases — not letting them go and not letting them destroy their futures. – Morgan Hardy

One thing that I learned about opioids is that they are highly addictive. But it also can depend on the person’s brain chemistry and this can determine whether you are able or unable to avoid addiction. If you have a particular brain chemistry, then you can easily become addicted to an opioid. — Nick Laudisi

After hearing Ms. Perry-Pschierer talk about the opioid crisis, I continued to think about what she said. I mostly thought about what she said about the media’s portrayal of drug addicts. She talked about how drug addicts are portrayed as bums or people living out on the streets. But drug addicts are in all of the social classes…. [Yet, despite the sadness of this loss], she isn’t letting her life be taken over by sadness. She is taking what has happened and is trying to make a difference. She is trying to help others not be put in the same situation as she was.
— Kelly Carson

She said she goes to organizations to help people who are going through the same thing her son went through. [These organizations include Nar-Anon, for “people who love addicts,” Ms. Perry said.] I give Ms. Perry -Pschierer credit for how strong she and her husband are; they never gave up on Justin. I hope the best will come for them, as they try find out why these addictions happen to good people. – Autumn Powell

Often times, they [addicts] are people just like you and me. They could be the top students in your class and have full scholarships to Harvard; they can still have an opioid addiction. Furthermore, it’s not as simple as saying, “Drop the drug.” People with opioid addictions will do anything for the drug, Ms Perry-Pschierer told us. Anything. “They will do anything to relieve the pain.” — Melanie Sloyer

See our related story on Justin’s life:

Putting a face on the opioid crisis I: The loss of a beloved son