Who dies from overdoses? Karen Pershing has the answer

Tom KingFarragut, Our Town Health

In 2021 in Knox County, 537 people died of drug overdoses. Would you care to venture a guess about their age group? My guess – young people somewhere in the age group of 18 to maybe 30. Guess again?

Karen Pershing

On March 8, 2023, Karen Pershing, executive director of the Metro Drug Coalition, asked members of the Rotary Club of Farragut to guess the age group of the victims. “Everyone says it’s young people,” she said. “It’s actually people who are in the 35 to 44 age group and above. They’re working and have the money to afford the drugs.”

Those young people we think are the worst offenders are actually the lowest of all age groups for overdose deaths in 2021 – only 21. The sharpest increase was in individuals ages 55- to 64-years-old.

Here are three interesting numbers:

  • 60% of those who died were male
  • 265 died in their residences
  • A total of 3,874 died in Tennessee in 2021

Pershing said when she began her current role at the Metro Drug Coalition 13 years ago, that statewide number was a third of what it was in 2021.

“The 65 to 74 group deaths grew out of the Covid pandemic that started in 2020,” Pershing said. “Most of those deaths were from alcohol, taken when the elderly were lonely and depressed.”

The abuse of prescription drugs is borne out by the massive numbers of medications sold. In 2021, doctors in Tennessee wrote 4.8 million prescriptions and 3,874 died of overdoses. The number of prescriptions written places Tennessee third nationally, behind No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Arkansas. And after Tennessee are two other Southern states – Louisiana and Kentucky.

East Tennessee is, by far, the No. 1 region in our state for overdose deaths.

Why East Tennessee and the Southern states? “I think it goes back to the history of moonshining, to people who live in poor rural areas and do not get much education,” she said.

The Coalition’s focus is two-fold – helping those who need help find help and offering recovery and support services. It provides medication lock boxes to protect a person’s or families’ medications. Staff also work with the homeless. Future plans include programs to support the whole family, families that have lost children to SUD – Substance Use Disorder, and children ages 7 to 12.

The Gateway Center on W. Fifth Avenue opened in September 2022 and has multiple programs to support those who are in recovery from their drug addictions.

To learn more about the Coalition and the good work it does, click here.

To learn much more, the Knox County Regional Forensic Center offers a thorough look in its 2021 Drug-Related Death Report in Knox County and Anderson County. Click here.

Tom King is a career journalist and a past president of the Rotary Club of Farragut. If you want more information about Rotary or are interested in attending a meeting or joining, please email Tom. The club meets every Wednesday at 12:15 p.m. at Fox Den Country Club.

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