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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Heroin Crisis is Taking Lives of Many in Appalachia

“The worst part of overdosing was waking up,” claimed a West Virginia heroin user.

A recent New Yorker article follows the lives of several people in West Virginia, exposing the widespread problem of heroin usage in poorer areas of the Appalachian region.

The Appalachia region. CC Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A few of the Appalachian states consist of North Carolina, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Mississippi, possessing some of the poorest regions in the country.

West Virginia, an Appalachian state, has the highest overdose death rate in the country.

What used to be a problem with largely prescribed opiate drugs has now pivoted towards a large increase in the use of heroin.

Heroin has become a cheap alternative to prescription pain medication to many people. A recent drop in the use of opioid prescription medications coincided with a spike in heroin usage.

An oxycodone pill now costs around eighty dollars, while a dose of heroin costs a mere ten.

In the memoir Hillbilly Elegy, author J.D. Vance notes several times that prescription drugs were a problem not only in his town, but in his household, with his mother being an addict. He also noted that in his town, it was understood that heroin was thought to be more dangerous than prescription medications; it was a sign of desperation.

Along with the spike in heroin usage, the amount of overdoses has increased immensely as well.

“They’re struggling with using but not wanting to die,” a medic noted.

According to the New Yorker article, nearly all of the addicts in West Virginia are white, born in the area, and have modest to little income. High levels of poverty and joblessness produce psychological distress, which in turn, can be numbed by the use of heroin and prescription drugs. Unfortunately for many of these heroin users, it often leads to overdose.

Heroin can be found in powder and pill form. CC Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

“That’s the scary part- that it’s becoming the norm,” a West Virginia resident said within the article, referring to heroin overdose.

The widespread and detrimental use of heroin on a person can also affect the family as a whole. As seen in Hillbilly Elegy, many children are often exposed to the traumatic effects of having a heroin addict for a parent. A report on child welfare and substance abuse claims that being raised by a drug-dependent parent leads to:

  • poor cognitive, delayed social and emotional development
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • other mental health symptoms
  • physical health issues
  • substance-use problems for the child

For families like J.D. Vance’s, growing up around drugs is a popular issue in their area. Recently, the drug of choice seems to be heroin, in replacement of prescription opioids.

“Heroin has become a social contagion,” claimed psychotherapist Peter Callahan.

How to solve the lethal problem? According to the New Yorker article, it will take time. However, the state of West Virginia has begun to treat the heroin epidemic as a public-health problem and aims to take further steps to diminish this deadly drug that takes the lives of so many Appalachia residents.

Gillian Keebler
Student Assistant, Go Big Read Office