Drug- and alcohol-related deaths on the rise, according to Summit County coroner
Local experts believe the trend is related to pandemic struggles
Summit County already struggled with alcohol and substance use before the pandemic, but since the county’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 in March 2020, local officials and experts are reporting that the issue is getting exponentially worse.
Summit County Coroner Regan Wood said her office is seeing a higher rate of 30- to 40-year-old males dying of alcohol and drug overdoses, and these deaths are “probably more accidental than intentional.” Wood gave her update during a Summit Board of County Commissioners work session meeting Tuesday, Aug. 10, and said she attributes the trend to the struggles many have experienced during the pandemic.
“I believe it’s just due to the last year and a half of isolation and self-medicating, and the effects are probably taking a toll on their bodies and organs,” she said at the meeting. “(There’s) a lot of heart failure in a lot of 30-something-year-olds that we should not be seeing.”
Wood said the overdose cases she’s seen this year include a 24-year-old and a 29-year-old with toxicology reports showing evidence of polysubstance use. Wood said both of these cases are considered accidental overdoses.
“What we’re seeing is people are using more polysubstances instead of just going with one drug of choice,” Wood said. “We’re finding really large toxicology panels with positive results when we get those back, and that’s kind of concerning.”
In addition, Wood said her other “most obvious” alcohol cases include a 45-year-old male, a 35-year-old male and a 63-year-old female, all of whom died due to excessive use of alcohol.
Wood said that according to family and friends of the 45-year-old man, the individual was “really fearful of COVID” and wouldn’t seek alcohol treatment; the 35-year-old had been in and out of rehab prior to his death.
Wood said her team hasn’t gotten toxicology results back for the 63-year-old female, but the autopsy showed “extensive organ damage due to years of chronic alcohol abuse.”
In addition to these causes, Wood said three of her cases have been suicides: Two cases were 64-year-old males and the other was a 45-year-old male. She said she is also waiting on toxicology results of 58-year-old Lezlie Culver, who was found dead in Breckenridge last month. Wood said she’s “pretty sure” Culver “intentionally overdosed on prescription medication.”
Wood said these cases are trending similar to what she saw last year. In 2020, Wood said there were nine definite suicides, meaning suicides with intent. There were also five accidental overdoses in people ages 30 to 45, all of whom she said struggled with mental health issues. The county also had three deaths that involved kratom, which is a tropical tree native to Southeast Asia with leaves that contain compounds that can have mind-altering effects, per the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
In general, Wood said that last year she saw a high number of cases that were accidental overdoses, which she calls passive suicides, meaning these individuals didn’t seek help or treatment.
“We just saw an alarming number of people accidentally overdosing, and it just raised an alarm in our field that this is not healthy for everybody,” Wood said. “We know (about) the mental health crisis around COVID, but the long-term effects on people’s bodies, I don’t think people realize, (especially) when we’re getting autopsies back on a 36-year-old that looks like a 76-year-old’s body.”
This trend isn’t a surprise to Kelly McGann, access to care manager at the Family & Intercultural Resource Center, or Jennifer McAtamney, executive director of Building Hope Summit County. McGann said alcohol and substance use are among the top five reasons individuals use the organization’s mental health navigator tool and that the resource center’s trends with young men specifically parallel what Wood is seeing in her department.
“We have seen an uptick in referrals for men to the mental health navigation program,” McGann said. “Specifically, we’ve seen a 24% increase in referrals.”
Historically, the resource center receives more referrals from women, but data collected from July 2020 to June 2021 shows that more men are seeking treatment and assistance.
Those interested in getting help should call 970-262-3888 to access the resource center’s mental health navigation tool, which provides patients and clients with a navigator who then helps individuals identify their mental health goals and connects them to appropriate resources. Building Hope also offers a mental health navigation tool at BuildingHopeSummit.org/mental-health-navigation that can connect individuals to other services in addition to various peer support groups. It also has a scholarship program that helps individuals who otherwise cannot afford mental health care.
Besides these two organizations, the Summit County Sheriff’s Office earlier this year launched its SMART team — otherwise known as a Systemwide Mental Assessment Response Team — that responds to a number of mental health related calls. Mind Springs Health’s Frisco location also offers various services, including group therapy, and Summit Community Care Clinic has a behavioral care team that includes addiction counselors. Aspen-nonprofit Recovery Resources, which specialized in detoxification and substance use monitoring, also has a location in Frisco.
Moving forward, McAtamney said Building Hope, the resource center and the county are continuing to make strides to get more behavioral and mental health resources offered in the community.
“We are working … to bring more services for people who need either step-up or step-down treatments, meaning they need more than therapy to keep them out of the hospital, or when you’re leaving the hospital, to help you reintegrate into the community,” McAtamney said. “We hope to be rolling out more programs in the Medical Office Building that will be accessible to local residents in the next six months.”
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