It’s been nearly eight years since Jennifer Weiss-Burke of Albuquerque found her 18-year-old son, Cameron, dead from a heroin overdose.
Now, she hopes the story of her son’s addiction and how it affected him and his family will be a tool in the state’s effort to draw attention to the dangers of opioid use.
In a two-minute video released Tuesday by the New Mexico Department of Health, Weiss-Burke describes Cameron as “a young kid struggling with an addiction that was far greater than he was. It had a stranglehold on him that he really didn’t know how to break free of, and it tore us apart.”
The episode is part of a series of short public service videos featuring the stories of real people in the state affected by opioid abuse through a newly launched Department of Health campaign called “There Is Another Way.” The idea, Weiss-Burke said Tuesday, is to portray “this epidemic as a real personal issue for so many of us.”
“Everybody’s on social media, on their phones, on the internet, so video is a great way to reach all demographics of people,” she said. “And people like to hear stories. You can only throw so many statistics at people before their eyes glaze over.”
The statistics are sobering.
For years, New Mexico has had among the highest drug overdose rates in the country, with some 500 people dying annually for the past 10 years, the majority from heroin and prescription opioids, according to state data.
The state has made some progress in addressing the problem, said State Epidemiologist Michael Landen.
Based on 2017 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, New Mexico ranks 17th in the nation for its rate of overdose deaths — a big improvement from three years earlier, when it saw its highest rate of fatal overdoses and ranked second in the nation.
Last year, New Mexico was one of two states to score top marks from the National Safety Council for its efforts in tackling opioid-related overdoses through policymaking. In its report, the national nonprofit praised New Mexico for using best practices to fight the epidemic — such as mandating education on opioid addiction for painkiller prescribers, implementing prescriber guidelines, launching prescription-drug monitoring programs, and improving its systems for data collection and sharing.
“We know that with significant health issues, multilevel interventions are needed,”said Landen, who appears in the video released Tuesday. “This is the sort of situation where we have to pull out all the stops. … Different audiences relate to different types of messages delivered by different spokespeople.”
Those interviewed in the video — including a doctor and an addict — speak to the issue in tightly edited segments designed to show how deadly addiction can be. Veronica Vasquez, a recovering addict in Albuquerque, succinctly sums up the appeal of heroin compared to other opioids: “It’s cheaper, it lasts longer and it’s a better high.”
One man comments on the desperate sight of addicts asking for handouts on the street: “Those are sons, those are daughters, those are mothers and fathers who are struggling with the disease. The more we can educate the community,” he says, “the more we can help the community heal.”
Landen agrees, saying, “We’re hoping this particular approach will reach more people and make a difference.”