Kristin Gourlay / RIPR

A record number of Rhode Islanders have died from an opioid overdose. In this special report on the epidemic of opioid addiction and overdose, we examine how our problem with prescription painkillers and heroin addiction and overdose got so bad, what it's like to respond to this crisis on the front lines, and how communities, and addicts, can recover.

That's the gist of the question a Bradley Hasbro Research Center scientist is asking as she embarks on a project to study 400 Rhode Island teens after their first brush with the law.

Rhode Island's health department director says 45 Rhode Islanders have died from overdoses so far this year. Concerns are growing that a dangerous combination of heroin and Fentanyl is continuing to kill unsuspecting users. The state medical examiner is still investigating, but Fentanyl is suspected in many of these deaths. It's a powerful painkiller, up to 80 times more powerful than heroin. In combination it can kill even habitual users quickly. There's an antidote for overdoses from opioids like heroin and other painkillers. It's called Narcan.

Kristin Gourlay / RIPR

State health authorities say 38 Rhode Islanders have died from suspected illicit IV drug overdoses so far this year, possibly from drugs that may have been laced with a powerful substance called fentanyl. That's despite public warnings the drugs might be tainted.

Drug dealers may be adding synthetic fentanyl to heroin to boost potency or stretch the supply to make more money. But what their customers may not know is that this particular compound is many times more potent than heroin and can kill even habitual IV drug users the first time they take it.

Aaron Read / RIPR

Rhode Island’s Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals has issued emergency regulations in response to the recent spike in drug overdose deaths.

Has heroin abuse reached epidemic proportions? What about painkiller abuse? Or are we just hearing more about it?

The academic jury is still out on this, as far as I can tell. Of course, it doesn't really matter what you call it if you've lost a loved one to heroin overdose.


Two community forums are taking place over the next week to talk about preventing overdose. They couldn't come at a better time.

Overdose kills more Rhode Islanders than any other kind of accident (including traffic and guns). During the first two weeks of January, 22 Rhode Islanders died from presumed illicit drug overdoses. Another two died over the past two weekends, according to a source at the health department.

Lots of news organizations, including this one, are ticking off the year's top 10 stories. I'd like to run through some of Rhode Island's bottom health stories, meaning the ones least likely to have appeared on radar screens - but which should have. And don't worry: there's some good news in here too!

In no particular order:

Rhode Island Hospital and the entire Lifespan network have announced new guidelines for prescribing painkillers in their emergency rooms. ER doctors are trying to address the growing problem of prescription drug abuse and addiction.

It's been a year since the tragedy in Newtown, CT took so many lives, including that of the gunman, who some believe was battling serious mental illness but may not have gotten all the treatment he needed.

We’ve heard lots, since then, about the need for more mental health resources, and lots about the rollercoaster ride of federal and state funding for those resources. Here’s a round up of some of the year’s most significant developments for mental health patients and advocates:

State lawmakers are looking at ways to strengthen Rhode Island’s prescription drug monitoring program. They say there are too many gaps in the current system that allow people to abuse prescription drugs.

The Providence Center has received a $1.7 million dollar federal grant to try to help people with mental health problems avoid the emergency room.  The program could help hospitals, and the state, slash some of the most expensive medical bills.      

That's the question vexing public health directors - and anyone with a loved one who's experienced one -  everywhere. That includes Rhode Island, where health department chief Dr. Michael Fine named combating prescription drug overdose deaths one of his top priorities.

A new report finds that while deaths from prescription drug overdose have doubled in Rhode Island, the state has implemented many of the measures experts say can prevent those deaths.

The first recovery center in the state’s Adult Correctional Institute is now open. The Anchor Recovery Drydock is in the women’s facility and will provide female inmates with treatment inside the ACI and resources for when they get out. The Providence Center’s CEO Dale Klatzker said having a recovery support network is key to staying sober and out of prison.

“All the treatment in the world isn’t going to make a difference if you aren’t also able to sustain your sobriety,” said Klatzker. “If you’re in an environment where all the pressures are on you or to use and abuse drugs.”