MILWAUKEE - 2021 marked a record high for drug-related deaths in Milwaukee County, and the medical examiner says we’re on pace to top that in 2022.
A big driver of this is fentanyl. Ten years ago, fentanyl was found in 5 of 167 total drug-related deaths in the county. In 2021, it was found in 508 of 644 drug overdose deaths.
The medical examiner said Milwaukee County is on track for more than 700 drug-related deaths in 2022.
You can count up the number of lives lost to drug overdoses, but you can never quantify the suffering.
"There’s still far, far too many lives lost too soon and too many families with an empty chair at the table,"said Debbie Merritt-Dillman of Hartland, who lost her son to an overdose.
For each empty chair, a ribbon filled a tree at Humboldt Park – more than 640 representing the overdose deaths in Milwaukee County in 2021.
"A visual like that just drives it home how many lives we are losing too soon," said Merritt-Dillman.
Behind every overdose statistic is a face, like Merritt-Dillman's son, Ben, who died in 2017.
"He wasn’t just someone making a bad choice," said Merritt-Dillman. "He had a disease, and he fought like crazy to overcome it."
Jill Barney's son, Bryan, lost his life the same year.
"He was a great, great young man," said Jill Barney, Brookfield GRASP facilitator (Grief Recovery After Substance Abuse Passing). "There he was, needle still in his arm, and worst day of my life hands down. All I can do is try and pay it forward and try and help other people."
She encourages other people who have had a similar loss to look into GRASP, which offers group meetings.
"Everyone is impacted," said Courtney Geiger, Milwaukee Health Department. "We need to eliminate the stigma because if we’re not talking about it, then people don’t know there are resources."
Resources include the opioid-reversal drug Narcan and test strips for fentanyl, now present in 80% of drug-related deaths in Milwaukee County.
"With the opioid litigation funds, we’re really going to be saturating the community with fentanyl test strips," said Geiger.
They hope filling the community with these faces will reduce the stigma and bring down the number of lives cut short.
"So many people look at is a moral failing," said Barney.
"I think it keeps it real to say that was a real person with a future and a family and a bunch of people that really miss him," said Merritt-Dillman.
The Wisconsin Department of Health Services is working to make fentanyl test strips more widely available. They can now be found at places like fire stations, treatment centers and local health departments.
Information from DHS on harm reduction resources can be found here.