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W.Va. City Battles Rising Substance Abuse Among Middle-Aged Whites

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This week began with some grim new data showing that the death rate for one group of Americans is rising, middle-aged whites who did not attend college. They're the only Americans whose death rate is going up. Middle-aged African-Americans do still have a higher death rate, but it's dropping. Researchers say the extra deaths in this particular demographic - again, white, middle-aged men and women - are due to drug and alcohol abuse and suicide driven by financial problems, isolation and chronic pain. We called the mayor of one city in Appalachia that's been dealing with these problems, Huntington, W. Va. Steve Williams says his city is responding to widespread heroin and prescription drug addiction.

STEPHEN WILLIAMS: It has hit Huntington horribly. Just this year alone, we've had over 650 overdoses and over 50 deaths. What I've determined is that the overdoses are more a symptom. The actual disease is hopelessness. The level of jobs in the area have declined significantly, and I don't think that that is just a coincidence.

MONTAGNE: And though, of course, young people who face joblessness could also be...

WILLIAMS: Yes.

MONTAGNE: ...Say, depressed or have, for all kinds of reasons, turn to drugs. The key here is that we're talking about middle-aged adults. So what's the difference here, as you see it?

WILLIAMS: Not long after 1999, we had the Internet bubble bust. We also had, in 2008, the financial meltdown. Frankly, I think - and this is just anecdotal from my observation and my experience - is that there is a demographic in America that was hit, and hit hard, during each of these time frames that had somehow been able to manage through with blue-collar jobs, with manufacturing that was continuing to grow. And then, particularly by the time 2008 came along, the bottom just started to fall out.

MONTAGNE: What are the jobs that have been lost there in Huntington, W. Va.?

WILLIAMS: Oh, well, it goes back so many years. We have glass plants, we have automobile bumper plants that have shut down. We have an alloys plant that is a fraction of the size that it was then. It just continues to spin out of control.

MONTAGNE: There in Huntington, when you talk about the loss of jobs and how hard that might hit middle-aged white people - I mean, obviously, it hits all age groups and all demographic groups and all ethnic groups - but when it comes to that group, what are you seeing, you know, as mayor of the town? Are you seeing a particular and maybe new kind of hopelessness among the middle-aged people?

WILLIAMS: This is one demographic that found themselves where, in years past, they were able to keep their head above water. Now they're finding themselves - not only are they not able to keep their head above water, but they're sinking and losing everything, everything that they could hold dear. What we're experiencing today is - the data is starting to point out, after the fact, the extent of the damages that are occurring. And we're still reeling from those effects to this very day.

MONTAGNE: I gather that there in Huntington, you have been fighting these issues for some time. What seems to be working? What are you doing?

WILLIAMS: Well, there had been such an aggressive effort focused on law enforcement, and we can't arrest our way out of these problems. They would just break your heart, Ms. Montagne. I just personally went and followed a SWAT raid to hit a heroin house, and what we found just shocked me. The 400 grams that had been delivered the night before, at 11 p.m., at 8 a.m. there was less than 35 grams left in the house. It had already been distributed. And that told me that we had such a serious problem of addiction. So we had to not only be aggressive from a law enforcement standpoint, but we have to have the level of treatment, we have to have support programs. We've implemented a syringe exchange program. We have to be able to reach out to someone who is in addiction and take them by the hand and give them an assurance that we are not going to let go.

MONTAGNE: Mayor Williams, thank you very much for joining us.

WILLIAMS: Thanks for having me.

MONTAGNE: Steve Williams is the mayor of Huntington, W. Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.