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'It was a tough time' | Families struggle to survive through loved ones' opioid and substance abuse

According to a new report from the Office of DC's Chief Medical Examiner, the number of opioid overdoses has been on a steady climb since 2018.

WASHINGTON — A glance of Olivia Renne in a family video shows a talented, energetic and smart girl. What you don't see are the layers of hurt and pain Olivia tried to soothe with substances after she shared a personal story with her best friend.

"I told him about my moms and from then on, he didn't talk to me at all," Olivia Renne said in the family film. 

Her moms, Cindy Morgan-Jaffe and Tanya Renne, recall the vile and vicious bullying Olivia endured. 

"She got some pretty graphic and disturbing text," Morgan-Jaffe said. "That as a clue of the depth at which she was struggling, and she was struggling in terms of just people really being mean to her in school."

Then, her moms said they noticed concerning changes in their 14-year-old daughter. 

"You know, friends change, changes in school, changes in interest," Tanya Renne said. "She was really escaping." 

Morgan-Jaffe and Tanya Renne said their daughter started using marijuana and drinking, then she turned to prescription pills. 

"It was tough," Morgan-Jaffe said. "It was a tough time."

According to an August 2022 report from the Office of DC's Chief Medical Examiner, the number of opioid overdoses has been on a steady climb since 2018. By mid-August of this year, there were a total of 166 overdoses. 

"Every five minutes, that's how serious the substance use disorder is plaguing our communities," Nadine Parker, the director at the DC Prevention Center

Parker says she's on a mission to reverse that trend through the Live Long DC initiative.

"Most people are not aware that you can get addicted to prescription drugs," Parker said. "Then, we have the major fact that is drawing overdoses within our community because everything is laced with Fentanyl," she said.

"This opioid crisis is not a problem so much as it is a symptom," the former U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams said in the documentary "Tipping the Pain Scale."

To spread that message, the DC Prevention Center partnered with American University to host the screening of the award-winning film focuses on the failures and innovative solutions to address the addiction problem. Spoken word artist Joseph Green, from Virginia, is featured in the documentary, using his poetry as prevention.

"I think that we don't have enough attention, especially with young people, on the social-emotional skills, the emotional maturity to be able to deal with the inevitable stress of life," Green said.

Parker points to data that shows the increase in college students suffering from anxiety and depression turning to drugs as a coping mechanism. 

"I was just curious and then I tried it one time, and I went from there," said Michael Barnett, Jr., who tried Percocet for the first time as a 20-year-old college student.  "When I tried to stop on my own, I was already knee deep. I couldn't even do it." 

The young man who graduated in the top 10 of his high school class, loved playing basketball and making rap videos, is now in treatment and recovery. Once a week, Michael checks in at the outpatient clinic to submit to a urine sample, a medical assessment and get counseling with his doctor who prescribes Suboxone to treat his addiction.

Credit: WUSA9
College student Michael Barnett, Jr in treatment for opioid and substance use disorder

"There's more of a holistic approach," said Dr. Lisa Boynes-Sindass.  "We try to introduce them and connect them with a peer counselor. Is their housing appropriate? We also help to provide them with primary care here. And, the last piece is to make sure that mental health is addressed. It's an on-going process, lifelong. Once you've changed the chemistry in your body, it's something that you have to manage."

In the case of Olivia Renne, she fought through her six-year addition, and made it to the other side. She's now in college and living a healthy life.

"The day will come when she can look back and just recognize the war that she was in, how that impacted her, impacted so much of the family," Morgan-Jaffe said.

"We've learned a tremendous amount and I think our daughter is in a really good place," added Tanya Renne. 

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