Photo taken from the banks of the Cape Fear River near the Memorial Bridge that crosses the river between New Hanover and Brunswick counties.
Photo taken from the banks of the Cape Fear River near the Memorial Bridge that crosses the river between New Hanover and Brunswick counties. Photo credit: Zach Rudisin, Wikimedia Creative Commons

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By Taylor Knopf

By some measures, Wilmington, N.C. ranks number one in the nation for opioid abuse.

But for all its problems, the city’s residents and those in the addiction recovery community say that reputation is a bit unfair.

“There are a lot of different theories about why it’s so problematic in Wilmington specifically,” said Michael Page, a North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition worker who helps operate a mobile needle exchange in Wilmington.

NC Harm Reduction Coalition’s Michael Page. Photo courtesy Michael Page.

“I feel that it has a lot to do with the polar opposite, which is recovery. Wilmington is a mecca for recovery,” he argued.

Page and others in the area say that there are close to 300 twelve-step meetings a week in the city. It’s filled with halfway houses and substance abuse outpatient programs. It’s also important to note that according to NC Department of Health and Human Services, Wilmington does not have the highest number of opioid deaths in the state.

The city is also home to Wilmington Treatment Center, which for a long time was considered one of the premier addiction treatment centers in the country.

Wayne Ray, director of Launch Pad, a full-service recovery community near Wrightsville Beach, hitchhiked from Goldsboro to Wilmington a couple decades ago to be near the water. He’s been in recovery for 21 years from cocaine addiction and said that people often come to the water for healing and a new start.

Ray’s heart and work are in Wilmington, and he says the study by Castlight Health — which ranks Wilmington as the top city for opioid abuse — gives his “town a black eye.”

“I’m a little defensive about that ranking,” he said, emphasizing how many addiction recovery efforts are happening in Wilmington.

One aspect of the Castlight study to keep in mind is that it only surveyed employed populations through commercial workforce claims. Those on Medicaid and Medicare, which makes up close to 38 percent of North Carolinians, were not included in the study.

“An assumption is made that people gainfully employed are not impacted by this problem,” said Kristin Torres Mowat, senior vice president at Castlight Health. “But it’s an issue that affects everybody.”

The Castlight study illustrates that point.

Mowat said that hopefully in the future, Castlight will conduct a similar study and the numbers will show improvements as elected officials, medical professionals and community groups work to fight opioid addiction.

Strength in numbers

Wilmington and Asheville have the two largest and strongest recovery communities in the state, according to Donald McDonald, director of advocacy and education for Recovery Communities of North Carolina.

Donald McDonald from Recovery Communities of North Carolina said getting into recovery, “lead me to autonomy, community and a deep sense of purpose.” Photo credit: Rose Hoban

McDonald said it’s vitally important for people recovering from addiction to have a strong community of support, which is why so many people go to these places.

“It’s unfortunate that nationally Wilmington is characterized by the problems it’s facing,” he said. “It’s an unfair characterization. I know it has to hurt a little bit for the people there doing great work.”

That being said, an area with a large addiction recovery community is also going to experience a good amount of relapse and return to use.

Addiction relapse rates are between 40 and 60 percent, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. These rates are similar to people afflicted with other chronic diseases such as asthma or type 1 diabetes.

“People that have some sort of recovery in their story and then return to use, they are 13 percent more likely to suffer an overdose because their tolerance has gone down,” Page said.

“Because of the shame and guilt that they have because they are returning to use, they use more to try to numb themselves,” he said.

Page added that some people surmise that the drug problem is worse in Wilmington because it’s a port city.

“But the heroin we are getting is not coming on cargo containers,” he said. “I really think it has to do with the fact that it’s a college town and the amount of recovery that’s here.”

Ray seconded that the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, which is considered a “party school,” adds to the problem. He also theorized that the number of older retired folks and former military personnel who settle in Wilmington could add to the number of opioid prescriptions for ailments related to age and military service.

“These are all hypotheses. We really won’t know, will we?” Page said.

Grassroots recovery

‪Anna Goddard‬, president of a new nonprofit called Heart of Wilmington, echoed the others.

“When you compare our area to other counties nearby, they are resource deserts,” she said. “So people have to come here.”

Goddard, who struggled with substance abuse, recently started a campaign called “Get the H out of Wilmington.” It all started with a Facebook post. She was frustrated and sad about all the friends she had lost to addiction.

Heart of Wilmington launches their ‘Get the H Out of Wilmington’ project in early June. The grassroots group hopes to grow into the central clearing house for substance abuse information and services in the greater Wilmington area.

“We want to help but don’t know how. We were waiting for an answer and that answer never came,” she said. “I wanted to call a family dinner where we could get together to discuss what to do. With all of our ideas together, I figured we would have a better chance at tackling it.”

The first dinner was a success. News crews came, as well as people from across the addiction recovery community.

They decided to focus on aggregating all treatment and resource options in one place. Goddard said it’s often hard for people to find the right fit. Her organization is working on a website and app where people can build a profile and see all the recovery services that are best suited for them in their area.

For example, there are three nonprofits in Wilmington that offer free job interview clothes, she said, but people are unaware of the service.

“I’m only alive today because of Narcan reversal,” she said.

“I overdosed 10 years ago. I have a strong personal connection. I was in ICU for over a week. I credit my life to my strong family. They are incredible. But leases don’t end because you decided to get recovery,” Goddard said. After being discharged from the hospital, she had to go back to her apartment where her roommate was still using drugs.

Goddard said the best resource the people in Wilmington have is the community of people that want to help with whatever skills they have. They can help with those life things that prevent people from going to detox, such as helping out with rent, pets, childcare or jobs.

“Treatment shouldn’t have to be that hard,” Goddard said. “Addiction is hard enough.”

Heart of Wilmington is hosting its next event on Aug. 31 at the Greenfield Lake Amphitheater with elected officials, law enforcement, musicians and recovery advocates.

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Taylor Knopf

Taylor Knopf writes about mental health, including addiction and harm reduction. She lives in Raleigh and previously wrote for The News & Observer. Knopf has a bachelor's degree in sociology with a...

One reply on “Why Are There So Many Opioids and Overdoses in Wilmington?”

  1. There is no doubt that we have a heroin epidemic confronting the Wilmington community and a solution is desperately needed. It is disappointing that spin-doctors with personal agenda’s point to apparent reasons why we have this problem, without ANY basis or facts to support their reckless claims.

    Wilmington benefits enormously due to the resources the University provides this area. It does not deserve to be tainted nor blamed for the affects of a national epidemic that we now have to deal with on a local level. To solve the problem, stakeholders need to stick with facts before speculating in publicly forums and assigning blame with no basis.

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