Public Radio for Alaska's Bristol Bay
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Dillingham gathers for town hall to address opioid crisis

 Dillingham residents gather for a town hall on preventing opioid overdoses on June 8, 2023
Corinne Smith
Dillingham residents gather for a town hall on June 8, 2023

This story contains references to opioid overdose and death, and may not be suitable for all readers. If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use disorder you can access help at Dillingham’s SAFE shelter at (907) 842-2320.

Three recent opioid overdoses – including the death of a local youth – have shaken the Dillingham community. Last week, residents gathered for a town hall, where attendees discussed how to share resources and address the opioid crisis and mental health needs in the community.

Over a hundred people gathered in the Dillingham high school gym for the evening town hall. Residents mingle and visit over fruit and hot dogs, but the mood is somber. There’s a table piled with first aid kits, safer injection supplies, saline and fentanyl test strips. Every chair also has a bracelet sitting on it that reads “You are loved.”

"The purpose of this is that we walk away with a better understanding and better feeling. What has happened in the last few weeks has been devastating," said Tiffany Webb, the opioid prevention coordinator for the Bristol Bay Area Health Corporation, which offers mental health resources and boost prevention efforts in Bristol Bay.

"In the last decade, we've lost more people than I can count on my hands and feet to drugs, to alcohol," she said.

The community is reeling from the recent tragic death of a Dillingham youth last month.

Alaska had the largest spike in overdose deaths in the United States last year, according to the Center for Disease Control. Fentanyl was involved in nearly three quarters of those deaths. The overall death toll from opioids has risen steadily since 2018. Each year, Native Alaskans have represented the largest rate of overdose, according to the Alaska Department of Health.

Efforts to distribute the life-saving drug Narcan have ramped up across the state. In Dillingham, kits are available for free at public offices around town.

Webb says the resources are not enough to address stigma, which can be a big barrier for those seeking treatment, and the deeper pain behind addiction.

"We can’t look away from what needs to be improved, but we can’t vilify the people in these systems because they are still our people," she said. "Everybody has to feel like they belong. That's our traditional way, we lift each other up."

Susie Jenkins-Brito is a nurse at Kanakanak Hospital. She says the community needs to focus on helping each other.

"We need to be having open conversations. It's not about creating a stigma, it's about keeping each other safe," she said. "We're going to stop this by being kind to each other and respecting each other. And we're going to help this by being honest. I'm tired of people dancing around the topics. It is here. It is real. And we are seeing it."

Jenkins-Brito warned about the danger of blue pills circulating in Dillingham, known to be synthetic fentanyl. Health officials are also warning of counterfeit pills cut with Narcan resistant drugs.

Bristy Larsen runs a salon, one of the first local businesses to distribute Narcan. She says she hasn’t been able to keep it on the shelves since. She says many people in the community come to her at their lowest point.

"I have people that come to me almost every day all day, in a state of frenzy," Larsen said. "They need a haircut, they need a tattoo, they need a piercing, they need something to make them feel different than how they feel. And if I turn them away, they go right to the liquor store. If I turn them away, they go right to the drug dealer. So when someone calls you or you see someone in a frenzy, you see their eyes change, that’s a pivotal moment in their life. They've come to you for help."

Larsen says she hopes gatherings like this one will be effective in helping the community learn how to better support each other during the opioid crisis.

"This is the first I hope of many gatherings for a positive reason, because most of the gatherings that I've been to in the last few years have been funerals," she said.

Bryce Edgmon is the Bristol Bay representative for the state legislature, and says rural communities are particularly vulnerable to the presence of drugs.

"In a community like Dillingham, we’re ground zero when it comes to the scourge that fentanyl and other drugs present to communities, families, and individuals that we all know and have grown up with." 

Alaska has received over $80 million in national opioid lawsuit settlements last year. State officials say the money will go towards prevention, treatment, harm reduction and recovery efforts across the state. But none of the funds have reached Bristol Bay communities yet.

For Jenkins-Brito, legislative promises don’t mean much.

"We should be more open with telling each other that we love each other because we do. This community, this region is such a beautiful, special place. Nowhere have I ever felt so loved as in Dillingham and I know that's true for so many of you. We just need to respect each other because I’m really tired of saying goodbye."

Lifelong Dillingham resident JJ Larson took the podium to share his story of recovery, made possible by the continuous support of his family.

"My dad hounded me constantly. He loved me constantly," he said. "He never stopped making sure I was alive. If I didn't answer my phone, he would come to my house and pound on my door, until he knew that I was alive. And I hated it. I hated it. I never wanted to see him. But when I look back now, I know that it was people like my dad, and my sisters and my brothers. They were there for me, when I didn't want them to be."

He urged the community not to give up on those suffering from addiction.

"When I was ready, all I did was make a phone call. I was in treatment within 48 hours of telling my family I was ready. And if that hadn't happened, if I had to wait another 24 hours, I wouldn't be here today. And that's something that everyone in this room can do."

"I’ve always had to tell people, be prepared for everything. Be prepared to lose someone, because that might happen. But be prepared for them to come back."

The town hall closes with a Yup’ik prayer, a blessing for those in pain and for those who have died, and a wish for all Dillingham residents to walk away with all the love of their ancestors behind them.

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use disorder you can access help at Dillingham’s SAFE shelter at (907) 842-2320. SAFE’s listening line is (800) 478-2316. Overdose kits are available at Kanakanak Hospital at (907) 842-5201 and at the Dillingham Fire Department at (907) 842-2288. 

Jack Darrell is a reporter for KDLG, the NPR member station in Dillingham. He is working on the Bristol Bay Fisheries Report and is passionate about sustainable fisheries and local stories that connect communities and explore the intersections of class, culture, and the natural world.
Related Content