By Teddy Kulmala
Looking back on the life of their 22-year-old daughter, Jeff and Terri Benson say they didn’t love her tough enough.
Jessica Benson died in February from a heroin overdose. Her death came after six years of battling an addiction to prescription painkillers and heroin that, her parents say, started with a prescription to treat postpartum depression after giving birth to her son.
“We were once told by a counselor, ‘You need to make some tough choices or you will literally love your child to death,’ ” Terri Benson said during a news conference Tuesday. “We now have the deep understanding of tough love that only hindsight could bring.”
Jessica Benson’s death is an example of the epidemic officials say is gripping the nation: people prescribed painkillers for a dental or surgical procedure get addicted to opiates, which leads to a heroin addiction.
Tuesday’s event marked a positive milestone for Operation Medicine Drop, which has seen more than 3 million doses of unused or expired drugs turned in throughout York County since 2009.
However, the rest of the numbers presented Tuesday were sobering.
Drug overdose deaths have increased in York County from 28 in 2011 to 42 in 2015, according to the York County Coroner’s Office. Opiate-related deaths increased from 20 in 2011 to 25 in 2015, and heroin-related deaths went from zero in 2011 to nine in 2015. Between January and May of this year, the coroner’s office handled seven heroin-related deaths.
Nationally, admissions to treatment for prescription opiates increased 500 percent from 2000 to 2012, according to Janet Martini, executive director of Keystone Substance Abuse Services in Rock Hill. Last year, Keystone saw the third highest number of “unduplicated opiate-related admissions” in South Carolina’s drug abuse system, surpassed only by centers in Charleston and Greenville.
The startling numbers are behind a new multipronged initiative announced Tuesday by Keystone Substance Abuse Services and York County All On Board. York County Heroin and Opiate Prevention and Education involves prevention, education and monitoring by law enforcement, service providers, schools and the medical community.
The initiative is still in its early stages, but Martini said organizers already are reaching out to local physicians and speaking with them about the amount of pills they are prescribing individual patients.
The Rock Hill Police Department is working to implement a program that trains officers in administering Naloxone, an opioid antidote that is given to people who are believed to have overdosed on heroin or another type of opioid. The fast-acting antidote blocks the effects of opioid and reverses an overdose, according to Chief Chris Watts.
“Law enforcement is on the front lines every day, and many times are the first to arrive on scene,” Watts said. “This will be just another tool we have available that could potentially save lives.”
Jeff and Terri Benson want to save lives, too, and hope their daughter’s story will be a call to action for the community.
Terri Benson said she hopes people will recognize that drug use isn’t just a behavior or a phase that someone is going through, but an illness.
“What we struggled with is overcoming thinking our daughter had a character flaw or that she was lazy,” she said. “This is not a character flaw, this is not a lazy kid. This is somebody who’s really sick with a fatal illness and needs help, and you need to do what you have to do to help them.”
Teddy Kulmala: 803-329-4082, @teddy_kulmala