Stimulus checks could contribute to opioid crisis in rural Tennessee

Tennessee's Overdose Crisis

Tennessee's Overdose Crisis

ALTAMONT, Tenn. (WKRN) – Sheriff Clint Shrum knows opioid addiction is a problem plaguing Grundy County. It’s why he’s pleading with addicts to get help before it is too late.

“They’re going to die. And that’s what we’re seeing because they don’t know what they are getting now.”

Once a coal-mining town, jobs in Altamont have dwindled. Jail inmates told Shrum the lack of opportunity is to blame for their addiction, which ultimately landed them behind bars.

“I’ve had users’ grandparents in jail, they were users, their parents were users, and now they’re in jail,” Shrum said. “I’ve had as many as three generations of family in jail at the same time for the same thing.”

On average, 20,000 pain prescriptions go into county homes on a regular basis. Shrum said drug supply dried up at the onset of coronavirus until stimulus checks were cashed in. “People were getting that money and that’s the first thing they were doing with it. Drug dealers capitalized on that.”

Dealers cut pills with fentanyl to further the supply, leading to a record eight overdoses in just ten days. Three overdoses were deadly, according to the Sheriff. An additional 15 overdoses went unreported.

Shrum feared more overdoses may go unreported.

“I’ve had as many as three generations of family in jail at the same time for the same thing.”

Sheriff Clint Shrum

Addiction can be a roller coaster. Dave Hodges rode it personally before joining the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

“My life just got out of control,” Hodges said.

Hodges remains in long-term recovery. He said he was highly addicted to pain medications and considering suicide. After a 12-step program and faith-based help, he relocated to Grundy County.

Hodges’ success story is a message of hope for addicts.

“I see myself, the old me, in them. I remember what it was like to be them. I remember how hopeless I felt,” Hodges said. “Being able to share my story, it builds trust. They understand I’ve been where they are. Now, it’s time for me to say, ‘I’m going to grab your hand. I’m going to show you the way.’”

Hodges and Sheriff Shrum created an invaluable partnership. Together, they educated the community on their role in recovery.

Local churches started gathering weekly nearly two years ago, praying desperately for an end to the crippling opioid crisis. Jail inmates are offered certification classes and jobs through a reentry program.

Shrum said he realizes the battle of addiction will not be won easily. “I think sometimes people feel a sense of hopelessness.”

That’s why his department is working hard to change the narrative and bring hope to the community.

“Just because you didn’t get a job here doesn’t mean you can’t work,” Shrum said. “Just because you didn’t graduate high school doesn’t mean you can’t get a diploma.”

If you or someone you know needs help with addiction, call Tennessee’s Redline at 1-800-889-9789.

Tennessee’s overdose crisis is evolving in the wake of the COVID-19 Pandemic. First responders and emergency rooms are reporting an increase in overdose cases. News 2 examines the disturbing trend in a special investigation. Read the latest reports here.        

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