Factory work, Friday night lights and fentanyl: all three have become daily life in this Mississippi town.
It’s early in the morning. Now-retired nurse Betty Hayhurst climbs out of bed and begins breakfast for her family. She walks out onto the patio to watch the various woodland creatures crawl out of the rolling hills of north Mississippi. She removes herself from the encapsulating natural scenery and turns on the morning broadcast to hear the harrowing news: five people have overdosed due to fentanyl in just a few short days in the town just south of her peaceful property.
A drive down US Highway 45 from Hayhurst’s home in Kossuth, Miss. lands you in rural Prentiss County, and more specifically, its county seat of Booneville. It’s the town where Hayhurst’s son and grandson lived before moving to the state’s capital. It’s the town where she practiced medicine and worked to heal the local residents. It’s the town where she instructed inspiring health professionals on how to master their craft. But now, it’s the town that has fallen victim to an ongoing opioid crisis that’s ravaging the country, particularly lower-income and marginalized groups.
What is fentanyl and who gets these pills?
“Evidence gathered from a scene was taken to the MS State Crime Lab and tested positive for fentanyl and acetyl fentanyl,” Booneville Police Chief Michael Ramey said.
According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), fentanyl is the painkiller that is designed for cancer patients. The synthetic opioid is 80-100 times more potent than morphine, and is typically mixed with heroin when abused. The other drug mentioned by law enforcement, acetyl fentanyl, is even more dangerous than its potent brother and has no recorded health benefits according to the DEA.
Fentanyl is just one of the major opioids being prescribed to patients. In 2017, Mississippi, the 2nd poorest state in the union, had its health providers prescribe 92.9 opioid prescriptions per 100 people, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports.
Statistics obtained from the DEA show that over six million opioids were sold in Prentiss County between 2006 and 2012. That is enough for 34 pills per resident for the entire county. Furthermore, Booneville’s top distributor of opioids was AmerisourceBergen, and their top pill manufacturer was Par Pharmaceutical.
Data obtained from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that of Booneville’s population of 8,757, 28.1 percent living below the poverty line. Coupled with the town’s median household income dropping at a steady decline, the effects of the drugs flooding the streets are being felt by not only the victims, but those around them.
Kiana Davis is a Barnard graduate and current Public Health major at Emory University. After growing up in a household where prescription drugs were often abused, she worked as a field educator for a health organization in north Mississippi, where she was forced to reconcile with not only the addictions of other families, but her own.
“Right after my mom had [her third child], she had a procedure and was prescribed a ton of prescription pain meds,” said Davis. “Like, too many prescriptions for one pill cabinet. And when coupled with the postpartum depression, it was those pills that she eventually tried to commit suicide with.”
Fourteen years after her mother’s attempted suicide, her mother was found dead from an appearant accidental overdose. Davis went on to become a field educator to help those affected by substance abuse. She would go talk to individuals in rehabilitation centers and teach drug awareness at the local schools, and it was here where she soon saw the overwhelming influence it has on American society as a whole.
“Women are most likely to attempt suicide with pills,” continued Davis. “People think that drug addicts are just poor and ‘trashy.’ They were poor and uneducated and used drugs. The opioid crisis does not discriminate. It can affect any community or person. I was teaching a class in Thrasher (a town right outside Booneville) and I asked the students to raise their hand if anyone in their family suffered from drug or alcohol abuse. Every child raised their hand.”
Where is it happening? Why?
Davis’ story is not unique to Booneville. The data from the Drug Enforcement Administration shows two trends in opioids across the country: 75 percent of pills were distributed by six companies, one of which being Booneville’s top distributor, AmerisourceBergen. Moreover, 88 percent of pills where manufactured by three major companies: SpecGx, Actavis Pharma and Par Pharmaceuticals, Booneville’s major pill producer. Booneville is no exception to the crisis facing America; it is the example.
“This is happening in Booneville and everywhere,” said Hayhurst. “In the late 1950s and early 1960s, fentanyl was introduced, and we began using it to introduce anesthesia. It was not meant to be used as an opioid until the 1990s.”
In 2017, the Center for Disease Control reported that nearly 70,000 Americans overdosed due to prescription opioids, and while those statistics are down from 2016, synthetic opioid deaths are continuing to rise, especially fentanyl.
“The root cause for addiction is psychological trauma,” Davis said. “We don’t deal with psychological trauma, we numb it. We jump from relationship to relationship, or we watch Netflix, or we drink, or in some cases, we deal with it through drugs. In school, we are never taught how to deal with psychological trauma, and that’s mainly because we have a lack of mental health services.”
Davis, like many other Americans that have been forced to reconcile with the loss of life due to prescription drug abuse, was left wondering: what can be done about this?
“It was hard. [Her mother] was a force, but I think the physicians can help the most,” Davis said. “Many physicians were not aware of how addictive opioids can be, and a lot of that is because of big pharma.”
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services outlined how the rise in the opioid epidemic began and how it has evolved into the killer it is today. When opioids first became big in the late 90s, the large pharmaceutical companies advertise that these drugs were killing more than just the pain of the patients. As the sales of opioids increased, the body count rose with it. Once providers became aware of the adverse health risks relating to opioids, they began to roll back their leniency of prescriptions, but it was far too late; big pharma had enslaved their market. With doctors prescribing low dose and fewer refills of opioids, patients began seeking elsewhere for the numbing effects and found relief in drugs such as heroin. Here is where fentanyl became popular, as it was commonly used alongside heroin, which increases the chance of overdose.
What can be done?
As Betty Hayhurst fumbled around her kitchen, putting up groceries in the redwood cabinets that line the wall of her kitchen, she gave a huge sigh. “They need help,” Hayhurst said.
Unfortunately, that lack of help is too little too late for millions across the country, especially those two lost lives in the small rural town just south of Hayhurst’s estate. “At the end of the day, these pills and drugs and everything we use to numb ourselves don’t get rid of the pain,” Davis said. “They just trick your brain into thinking it’s not there, but it is. It will still be there.”