What is the goal behind Song for Charlie?
I was a senior in college in 2020, and I lost my boyfriend three weeks before graduation to fentanyl poisoning. When that happened … we quickly found out there were a lot of other families in our situation. Charlie thought he was getting a Percocet, but it was fentanyl, and it killed him. And we’ve heard more and more stories of kids – they’re getting younger and younger – who are experimenting with pills, trying an Adderall, which they assume is safe because their friends take it for ADHD, or an opiate for their wisdom teeth surgery, or a Xanax, which is what their parent takes for anxiety. They’re getting the drugs from social media and other means that aren’t the pharmacy, and they have, unfortunately, fatal consequences.
We quickly knew that we needed to spread awareness, and it was frustrating that there were six other cases of fentanyl poisoning among young adults and youth in Santa Clara County within 10 days of Charlie’s death. But none of the kids knew. None of our campuses was aware of it, and nobody knew what was happening. We realized the big gap was that law enforcement and public health people knew (of the problem), but the kids and parents didn’t know. In most cases, kids took the pills at home, and their parents found them (after overdosing).
So, we are giving talks about the person we lost, his story, and about fentanyl and how to spot fentanyl poisoning, how to prevent it, and how to share this with your peers. Then there are also parent talks that are focused on how to talk to your kid about it.
Charlie just took a single pill?
Yes. Actually, in a lot of cases with teens, it’s been half a pill. They split it with a friend, and one of them dies. That’s just the way fentanyl works; such a little amount is lethal. Charlie was getting ready for a job interview. He was excited for his future after graduation. He was always the one to get groups together, to bring people and new friends together, always bringing out the best in people. I think he would want his life and story to have a positive impact on people.
The Song for Charlie website says that the fastest-growing group of accidental drug overdose victims consists of the occasional, or recreational, users of prescription pills. Is that what your data are showing?
Yes, in a lot of cases, it’s people who are trying it for the first time. One of the moms who works for Song for Charlie, her son hadn’t tried alcohol or anything, but he just wanted to try it. He got a Xanax, thinking it would help him with anxiety. There are a lot of cases where kids have been taking a medication they’ve been prescribed, but they can’t find it any more from their doctor – whether because they lose that doctor connection or they can’t afford it and are seeking it through different means. There was, unfortunately, a case in Colorado where a boy’s parents didn’t have insurance, and he had a shoulder injury and bought what he thought were prescription opioids off Facebook marketplace.
You mentioned that you give talks to schools and groups through Song for Charlie. What are some other programs the organization offers?
For one, a student started this in-the-works, peer-based program. It’s called Fentanyl Fight Club. The idea is to equip friends with ways to share this information and know how to look out for an overdose. They need to be carrying Narcan and know why that’s important and know the difference between alcohol intoxication and an overdose. Good Samaritan laws are really important for kids and all community members to know. The requests for talks have been growing.
Your peer group is the one most affected by the fake opioid market. What do you tell people when they’re talking about possibly taking pills they’ve bought online or from another non-pharmacy source?
The majority of people I’ve given talks to are high schoolers. And I first tell them, ‘Now that I’ve given you this talk, we’re friends.’ You can tell your peers, ‘My friend lost her boyfriend to fentanyl poisoning.’ This is a real issue; there are fake pills. I also always tell people to carry Narcan. And if you do still decide to use pills, you need to be with somebody. Charlie was alone – nobody was in his house for three hours. There wasn’t Narcan on the scene, either. Overdoses take minutes to happen, and having naloxone, an overdose-reversal medication, in an emergency situation is so crucial.
Unfortunately, a lot of these cases have happened where kids are at a party and they just think somebody is asleep, when in fact they’ve overdosed. You can’t let people sleep it off. You have to make sure they haven’t taken anything, that they’re still breathing.
Your nonprofit also emphasizes coping strategies and mental health. What kinds of stress coping strategies do you suggest to young people?
We separated our coping strategies into ‘skills over pills’ and ‘farm over pharma.’ And ‘skills over pills’ is more focused on the short-term (feeling) of ‘I’m panicked right now.’ Instead of finding something to take, think, ‘What can I do?’ So, that might be a breathing exercise, going for a walk – various things. Sometimes for people, it’s getting out into nature, giving a friend a call. Having that crisis service is very important as well. ‘Farm over pharma’ is more about creating a sustainable lifestyle so that you’re not always needing to rely on pharmaceuticals. So, having a healthy diet, getting consistent exercise, writing out your tasks, having a plan – things like that.
New products are being developed to help people identify harmful substances in pills. What are some strategies available to people that could prevent an overdose?
I definitely think people are becoming more open to harm-reduction tactics like Narcan, especially with it now available over the counter. This summer, a few festivals are now allowing Narcan, which is crazy to me that they didn’t allow it in the first place. Fentanyl test strips are becoming more common, but it’s really hard with pills. Some of them can be made very well. Once a pill is made and given to you, it’s not tested. So you have to break it up into powder in order to use the fentanyl test strips. The government has created these pill-detector devices where you put the whole pill in to test it. We looked into it, and it’s very expensive.
When I’m talking to people my age, I just say, ‘Get it from the pharmacy. Don’t trust anything from anybody else.’ If people are still going to engage, that’s when you need to be with somebody who has Narcan on them.
It sounds like public health education might be in your future. What do you plan to do as a career?
With Charlie’s death, a lot of his friends had a big downward spiral, and I know I did. I’m from Connecticut, and I found a big part of my healing with a dog and at an animal sanctuary in Newtown. The Catherine Violet Hubbard Animal Sanctuary was started for a girl who lost her life in the Sandy Hook tragedy. With my grieving journey and working with nature and healing, I’d like to go into grief programming and address how trauma affects children and youth. There’s a lot to learn from adverse childhood experiences and how we can grow from them and really make a resilient generation instead of people damaged by it.
Photo at top: Charlie Ternan and Bridget Lattimer