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Nashville’s mayor lost her son to opioids. Here’s what she thinks will save families from that pain

August 8, 2017 at 6:30 PM EDT
As mayor of Nashville, Megan Barry has dealt with an increase in the number of overdose deaths, a problem that touches all corners of the country. Now it's a tragedy that touches her own family; her son Max died after an apparent overdose late last month. As she begins to speak publicly about her loss, Barry joins Lisa Desjardins to explain what steps she’s taking in her city.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to the opioid crisis in the United States.

President Trump addressed the issue today with a team of advisers meeting in New Jersey. It’s a problem touching all corners of the country.

As the mayor of Nashville, Tennessee, Megan Barry has dealt with an increase in the number of overdose deaths in her city.

But, last month, it took a very personal turn.

Lisa Desjardins has more.

LISA DESJARDINS: Mayor Megan Barry’s 22-year old son Max died a week-and-a-half ago after an apparent overdose. She spoke about her son’s death publicly for the first time yesterday, when she returned to work.

She’s encouraging families to have frank conversations about addiction.

And Mayor Barry joins me now from Nashville.

Thank you for joining us, and our very sincere condolences for your loss.

MAYOR MEGAN BARRY, Nashville, Tennessee: Yes, Lisa, thank you.

LISA DESJARDINS: This opioid epidemic is so often told in statistics, but I would rather hear a little bit about your son. Can you tell us a little bit about him?

MEGAN BARRY: Sure. Sure.

Max was a wonderful kid. He was full of energy. He had just graduated from the University of Puget Sound this summer and was looking forward to the rest of his life.

And you’re right. There are lots of statistics out there, but when it happens to your own child, it’s not a statistic.

LISA DESJARDINS: I’m wondering. You have been in civic life for a decade. You have been mayor for two years now. And, of course, you have got a personal story here.

When did it first come to your attention that the opioid epidemic was indeed a broad crisis in your community and in your life?

MEGAN BARRY: We have seen those numbers in our own community ticking up over the last several years. And, in fact, in this last year, we have equipped all of our first-responders with Narcan, so that they can have that drug available when they are — they find somebody who is experiencing an opioid overdose.

And we have also been focused on trying to make sure that we have more education by hiring some folks with our Public Health Department to address this opioid crisis. But, again, all of these issues and these things that we’re doing really hit home for me two weeks ago Saturday, when it was actually my own family that was impacted.

LISA DESJARDINS: Looking at this crisis nationally, you can really see the rise in recent years. Going back from 1999, from then until 2015, the Centers for Disease Control say that the amount of opioid prescriptions in this country quadrupled.

Also during that same time period, you can see that the amount of overdose deaths from opioids similarly quadrupled. Of course, it’s ticked up even more in recent years because of the addition of fentanyl.

This is a very complicated question of access to addictive drugs and also overdose. How do you deal with that, and what are the gaps, what are the resource needs that you have in Nashville?

MEGAN BARRY: Well, one of the things that we definitely need are more resources. We need treatment beds. We need access for individuals who are experiencing addiction to have treatment options.

And that’s been one of the conversations on a national level. My son did go into rehab last summer. And he was able to go because he had health insurance.

LISA DESJARDINS: One of the things that some people have called for is the declaration of a national emergency and waivers allowing more communities to use Medicaid for substance abuse.

MEGAN BARRY: Yes.

LISA DESJARDINS: Is that something you see there? Is that something you think a national emergency could help in your community?

MEGAN BARRY: I think a national emergency declaration would absolutely help in our community, because it is a national emergency.

Tennessee was number 10 last year in the amount of drug overdoses, and so it’s not just about Nashville. It’s about all of our communities. This is an urban and suburban and rural problem. And it crosses all families, and it crosses all economic spaces, and it is just — it is a crisis.

LISA DESJARDINS: President Trump today was focused on this issue. That’s one reason we’re talking about it with you today.

But he declined to declare a national emergency, but he did instead talk a lot about police, about ramping up law enforcement, about increased prosecutions, enforcing longer jail sentences.

Do you think that sort of law-and-order approach is something that would help in your community?

MEGAN BARRY: I don’t think that we’re going to arrest our way out of this.

I think that it has to be much more broad and comprehensive, and that means making sure that we treat this like what it is, a disease, giving people access to help and giving them access to treatment beds.

LISA DESJARDINS: I notice that you al are trying to hire an addiction specialist for Nashville.

MEGAN BARRY: We are.

LISA DESJARDINS: Has it been easy to find one? I know there are shortages in some parts of the country of counselors and people to deal with this crisis.

MEGAN BARRY: We’re in the process of interviewing right now.

And you’re absolutely right. We need more of those folks and we need more resources. So, we look forward to filling that position, and more positions as we need them.

LISA DESJARDINS: I wish I could say you’re in a unique position, but I think more and more of our lawmakers have personal experiences like you do.

And I’m wondering what your experience and what your son’s experience has given you in terms of how you look at this crisis.

MEGAN BARRY: Well, we decided right away that we wanted to be transparent and honest about Max’s death.

And we don’t want his death to define his life, but we also have to have an honest conversation about how he died. And you’re right. This has impacted my family, but it impacts a lot of families.

I can’t tell you how many people have shared their grief story with me, where they have never talked about how their son or their daughter died before. But now they feel like they can. And that’s part of it. We have to have these frank conversations with our kids.

LISA DESJARDINS: Has it helped you to talk about this, this last week, this last few days?

MEGAN BARRY: I’m not sure what helps.

All I know is that if there’s a parent or a friend out there who is seeing something in their own child or a friend, to make sure that they are reaching out to them, because that is going to be the best way to get them into treatment. These conversations have to be had.

And if I can spare one family the pain and grief that we’re going through, I hope I can.

LISA DESJARDINS: Mayor Megan Barry of Nashville, thank you so much for joining us.

MEGAN BARRY: Lisa, thank you.

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