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COVID-19 ripple effects: Richland County saw suicide, overdose numbers surge in 2020



It was a very bad year for not only overdoses, but also suicides and COVID-19 had a very direct impact on all of that, Joe Trolian said of 2020.


Trolian is the executive director for Richland County Mental Health and Recovery Services Board. While not providing direct services, the board plans and evaluates public-funded mental health and addiction services. It is also involved in Richland County Opiate Board and Richland County Suicide Prevention Coalition.


According to Richland Public Health’s data, the county saw 1,666 deaths last year. Sixty-one of them were drug overdoses, with more than a quarter happening in May and June. In 2019, at least 43 deaths were caused by overdose, with 11 cases pending.


Richland County also had a higher total overdose number in 2020, according to the Opiate Board. It was 433, increasing by 11.3 percent from the previous year. The age group of 25 to 44 is experiencing the most overdoses.


Trolian said people were not prepared to cope with the lockdowns triggered by the pandemic. When stressed out, some of them became substance abusers. The stimulus checks might have made the situation more serious by providing some with the economic means to buy drugs.


People with addiction had more money and drug dealers beefed up their supply. Ohio saw an immediate spike in overdose rate in April and May when those checks came out.


Reach those in need with resources

Richland County has tried to keep the opiate response teams (ORT), founded in March 2017, running as much as possible. Trolian said the ORT usually goes to a person’s residence within 72 hours of an overdose. The team tries to meet the person, the family or roommate, providing treatment information.


Three ORTs are responsible for Mansfield, Shelby and the Richland County Sheriff’s jurisdiction. Another team does outreach in the rest of the county when needed.Trolian said every team is staffed with a law enforcement officer, a treatment professional and a community advocate.


The service was only suspended one month last year to make sure there was enough personal protective equipment and each member was comfortable doing the runs, Trolian said.


“Over the (past) four years, we’ve seen upwards of 70 to 80 percent of the people that we’ve made contact with are getting into treatment,” Trolian said.


He said the ORTs have completed more than 500 runs since the program started. About 50 percent of people will take the treatment shortly after an ORT’s visit. In some cases, it might take a year. The team tries to revisit those who have not accepted help. Advocacy groups will follow up on those cases as well.


Richland County also responded to the drug overdose problem by getting people to dispose of unused or expired medications. Gurpinder Deol, health educator at Richland Public Health, said those medications can be misused in many ways. Even animals might consume the ones thrown away in the trash.


He said the Richland County Youth Substance Use Coalition asks the public to use prescription drug drop boxes or Deterra drug deactivation pouches to make safe disposals.


Drug drop boxes can be found at locations such as Meijer Pharmacy, CVS Pharmacy at 1049 West Fourth St. in Mansfield and many other locations. Free Deterra pouches are available at all Mansfield/Richland County Public Library locations and Mansfield and Shelby YMCA.


Pandemic made suicide prevention training more challenging

Besides the growing number of overdoses, the county also had more suicides in the pandemic year. RPH’s data show there were 16 suicides in 2020. The number was 9 in 2019, tentatively the lowest number since 2004.


Reed Richmond, health education and communication specialist for RPH, said the deceased were predominantly white males age 50 to 65.


Trolian said people were overwhelmed by the pandemic and worried that things would never go back to normal. They were isolated and afraid of seeking help, which might explain the increased number of suicides.


The mental health board and the suicide prevention coalition used to do in-person training for people to decipher signs of suicidal thoughts, depression and how to react to them. Trolian said education focused on the general population, including employers, school leaders and teachers.


With COVID-19, the training was done virtually. Trolian said the attendance was much lower. It was not the most effective way to get the word out. Instead, the agencies tried to utilize radio and TV spots to reach the public.