Coalition Corner | Molly Smithmeyer | Better understand death by overdose | Columns

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As the number of fatal overdoses throughout Cambria County continued to rise during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Cambria County Drug Coalition was determined to make change. As an agency, we recognized that this would require the collaboration of trusted partners as well as a detailed examination of individual lives lost.

When it came time to choose an internship location for my Masters program, the most important aspect was contributing to change in our community.

I had spent the years following my undergrad program working within the child welfare system. This foundation gave me a better understanding of how the drug epidemic affects children, families and the community in which we live.

The most pervasive fact remains that despite the hard work of agencies and community leaders, Cambria County continues to lose lives to overdose.

For me, that meant choosing the CCDC as the location for my internship. Since its inception over five years ago, the CCDC has been a catalyst for positive change, bringing together stakeholders from across their county to work together in cross-sector collaborations to reduce the impact of drugs on their communities.

In the spirit of inclusivity and with the core beliefs that every life matters and recovery is a reality, CCDC has brought together more than 100 leaders in well-organized, data-driven, and action-oriented sub-committees to reduce stigma, communicate treatment options, and expand evidence-based prevention and intervention programs.

Influencing policy change within a community system requires time, commitment, and a team of individuals committed to the same goal. Before implementing an overdose death review, the teams’ overriding goal remained to save lives and prevent future overdoses.

With the support and guidance of Pitt PERU, CCDC was able to connect with other counties across the state and nation that were beginning to set up Overdose Death Review Teams to help combat the national drug epidemic.

In 2021, the Cambria County Drug Coalition held its first formal Overdose Death Review Team meeting. The team is made up of representatives from public health, public safety, the courts, the coroner’s office and local treatment facilities, where applicable.

The main challenge of this crisis is the diversity of the people it affects and how it affects them. It therefore requires a response with a variety of approaches that involve several disciplines.

By building strong relationships with local leaders and a culture of using data to drive action, CCDC has laid the foundation for successful review of overdose deaths.

The team holds confidential meetings every two months to discuss the circumstances of several Cambria County residents who died of drug overdoses. This also includes their interactions with urban systems.

Next of kin interviews are also conducted when possible to gain much-needed insight into the individual’s life. We have been overwhelmed by the support of family and friends willing to share the stories of their loved ones with us.

Without this information, we would continue to have missing gaps.

Ultimately, these case reviews examine the life cycle of a deceased person in terms of history of drug use, comorbidity, major health events, socio-emotional trauma (including negative experiences childhood), encounters with law enforcement and the criminal justice system, treatment history and other factors, including local conditions.

Essentially, a timeline of their lives that helps tell their full story.

We recognize that people’s participation in services was only a small part of their lives, and these ‘social autopsies’ help us fill in the gaps.

By looking at an individual’s life from start to finish, we have the ability to see where the missed opportunities for prevention and intervention were that could have saved them. As a team, we believe that all overdose deaths are preventable, and we are working hard to see what we can do differently in the future. This input helps us develop policy recommendations, improve collaboration between agencies, and ultimately prevent overdose deaths.

Overdose death reviews are designed to have recommendations made throughout the meetings. Our team is committed to ensuring that we move forward and achieve tangible results.

Over time, we look forward to sharing the information with the public as well.

Ultimately, however, we’d like most of our progress to be shown in number of lives saved.

Molly Smithmyer recently earned a Masters of Social Work from the University of Pittsburgh and served in the CCDC Law Enforcement Sector during her internship.

Molly Smithmyer recently earned a Masters of Social Work from the University of Pittsburgh and served in the CCDC Law Enforcement Sector during her internship.

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