Fighting the crisis: AG Herring leads screening, panel on heroin epidemic

HENRICO COUNTY, Va. (WAVY) — In the last few years, thousands of Virginians have died after overdosing on opioids. Addiction is affecting every corner in the state.

On Monday, Attorney General Mark Herring hosted an event at Mills E. Godwin High School focused on raising awareness of the heroin and prescription drug abuse crisis. The audience screened the award-winning documentary “Heroin: The Hardest Hit,” which was produced by Herring.

Herring also led a panel discussion, including parents, law enforcement, a recovering addict and a physician.

Jenny Derr was part of the panel. Next week marks one year since she lost her son, Billy.

“Writing your 24-year-old’s obituary is pretty heart wrenching, so if we can save one family even from going through this, I think that would be a win,” she said.

Billy Derr died of a heroin overdose after a six-year battle with addiction. He was a Godwin graduate.

His mom describes him as a genuine person with a big heart. She says Billy loved bacon and butter, rap music and sports.

“He was always so willing to help others who were on their journey — which makes it ironic and sad that he was unable to admit that he had relapsed.”

Derr says talking about the issue isn’t easy, but it’s the only way to reduce the stigma and shame often attached to it.

She believes it’s a tough topic to tackle because parents don’t want anyone to think poorly about their children or themselves. But she says transparency is key.

“This is really a widespread issue that our community is facing, and the only way that we’re going to address it is to make sure we’re educated,” she said.

Derr says no one starts a heroin addict. Her son drank alcohol and smoked marijuana at first, but then his addiction snowballed. She wants parents to rethink their approach to alcohol and marijuana, which she considers gateway drugs.

“I think once you cross that barrier and use an illegal substance, you’re not going to think twice about doing it again,” she said. “If someone offers you a pill, that’s, you know, no big deal — especially because it’s prescribed. Oftentimes just taking one pill can lead to an addiction with opioids.”

Since 2007, nearly 7,000 Virginians have lost their lives to opioid overdose. “Heroin: The Hardest Hit” emphasizes the increase in heroin deaths across the state. It reveals there’s been a 94 percent increase in Hampton Roads, 50 percent increase in the Richmond metro area and a 164 percent increase in Northern Virginia.

“Heroin doesn’t care what your skin color is, how smart you are, how old you are, whether you’re male or female,” Herring says in the film.

Derr knows that firsthand. She’s encouraging families to open up about their own struggles with addiction.

“You wouldn’t be ashamed if your child had cancer, you wouldn’t be ashamed if they had diabetes and you shouldn’t be ashamed if they have mental health or substance use disorder,” she said.

To view “Heroin: The Hardest Hit,” click here.

The film and discussion were presented in partnership with Mills Godwin High School PTSO, Douglas Freeman High School PTSA, Godwin High School’s Project Purple Council, and the Henrico Heroin Task Force.