Fighting the crisis: AG Herring leads screening, panel on heroin epidemic

HENRICO COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — In the last few years, thousands of Virginians have died after overdosing on opioids. Addiction is affecting every corner in the state.

On Monday, Attorney General Mark Herring hosted an event at Mills E. Godwin High School focused on raising awareness of the heroin and prescription drug abuse crisis. The audience screened the award-winning documentary “Heroin: The Hardest Hit,” which was produced by Herring.

To a crowd of both parents and teens, Attorney General Mark Herring stressed the most important facet of the heroin epidemic.

“It’s not a white problem, black problem, Asian, Latino, really this is something that can happen to anyone,” Attorney General Mark Herring said.

He said as this problem spreads throughout the commonwealth, he wants to make sure he reaches as many people as possible

“We don’t want to wait until after a tragedy happens,” Herring said. “We want them talking about it now so young people know exactly how dangerous these drugs are.”

Herring also led a panel discussion, including parents, law enforcement, a recovering addict and a physician.

Jenny Derr was part of the panel. Next week marks one year since she lost her son, Billy.

“Writing your 24-year-old’s obituary is pretty heart wrenching, so if we can save one family even from going through this, I think that would be a win,” she said.

Billy Derr died of a heroin overdose after a six-year battle with addiction. He was a Godwin graduate.

Photo: The Derr Family

His mom describes him as a genuine person with a big heart. She says Billy loved bacon and butter, rap music and sports.

“He was always so willing to help others who were on their journey — which makes it ironic and sad that he was unable to admit that he had relapsed.”

Derr says talking about the issue isn’t easy, but it’s the only way to reduce the stigma and shame often attached to it.

She believes it’s a tough topic to tackle because parents don’t want anyone to think poorly about their children or themselves.

But she says transparency is key.

“This is really a widespread issue that our community is facing, and the only way that we’re going to address it is to make sure we’re educated,” she said.

Derr says no one starts a heroin addict. Her son drank alcohol and smoked marijuana at first, but then his addiction snowballed.

She wants parents to rethink their approach to alcohol and marijuana, which she considers gateway drugs.

“I think once you cross that barrier and use an illegal substance, you’re not going to think twice about doing it again,” she said. “If someone offers you a pill, that’s, you know, no big deal — especially because it’s prescribed. Oftentimes just taking one pill can lead to an addiction with opioid.”

Photo: The Derr Family

Since 2007, nearly 7,000 Virginians have lost their lives to opioid overdose. “Heroin: The Hardest Hit” emphasizes the increase in heroin deaths across the state. It reveals there’s been a 94 percent increase in Hampton Roads, 50 percent increase in the Richmond metro area and a 164 percent increase in Northern Virginia.

“Heroin doesn’t care what your skin color is, how smart you are, how old you are, whether you’re male or female,” Herring says in the film.

Derr knows that firsthand. She’s encouraging families to open up about their own struggles with addiction.

“You wouldn’t be ashamed if your child had cancer, you wouldn’t be ashamed if they had diabetes and you shouldn’t be ashamed if they have mental health or substance use disorder,” she said.

The goal of Monday’s event was to reach out to parents like Henrico mother Lisa Hawkins who came with her daughter.

“You realize how close to home it is when its right here in your back yard,” said Lisa Hawkins. “I do know that people have been affected by it in this area.”

Hawkins said it was actually her 12 year old daughter who encouraged her to come.

“I think that that video should be seen by as early as the 6th graders to get them really aware of what’s going on,” said Hawkins.

Still in middle school, her daughter Caroline said after seeing the documentary she wants to make sure drugs stay out of her life.

“I just texted one of my friends to never do drugs because I don’t want to lose them because of drugs,” Caroline said. “I don’t want to lose any of my friends because of drugs.”

They both said every parent and kid should talk about drug abuse because awareness is prevention.

“I actually want to take a couple of the pamphlets and give them to my friends to show them that doing this is not the answer,” said Caroline.

To view “Heroin: The Hardest Hit,” click HERE.

For details about resources and facts, click HERE.

The film and discussion were presented in partnership with Mills Godwin High School PTSO, Douglas Freeman High School PTSA, Godwin High School’s Project Purple Council, and the Henrico Heroin Taskforce.

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