Purple flags line the perimeter of Memorial Park along Highland Avenue to represent each life lost to overdose in 2021 / Credit: Becca Schmill Foundation

This morning, more than 2,000 purple flags are being placed along the perimeter of Memorial Park near Highland Avenue in advance of next Thursday’s overdose awareness vigil. Each flag represents a life lost to drug overdose in Massachusetts last year. 

The Aug. 31 vigil, co-sponsored by the Becca Schmill Foundation, is part of Needham resident Deb Schmill’s advocacy and education efforts in memory of her daughter’s battle with substance use and cyberbullying that led to her tragic death in September 2020. 

Speakers present at the first overdose awareness vigil / Credit: SPAN

“After she passed, our family wanted to do something in her memory and to make something positive come out of her loss, bring meaning to what happened,” said Schmill. “We started the foundation with the goal of finding gaps in the system. Where were the places where things fell apart for Becca where she didn’t get what she needed.” They focused on social media harms, youth substance misuse and treatment, mental health, sexual assault and trauma. 

The foundation funds research, hosts events to provide community awareness and advocates at the local, state and federal levels to protect children from these harms. 

The Substance Prevention Alliance of Needham program (SPAN), part of the health department and a co-sponsor of the vigil, has been working to educate and help area youth since 2006. The group has partnered with the foundation on several initiatives over the past couple of years, most importantly the community collaboration around this event. 

“I love that Deb has brought us all to the table to organize the event and bring that level of awareness to the community about opioids and fentanyl,” said SPAN program director Karen Shannon. In collaboration with Needham police, Needham Interfaith Clergy Association, Youth and Family Services, and Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital Needham, SPAN and the Becca Schmill Foundation will host the second Needham Overdose Awareness Vigil at Memorial field as part of the larger International Overdose Awareness Day. 

Credit: CDC National Center for Health Statistics

International Overdose Awareness Day began as a way to recognize the pain and suffering of people and their families who experience overdose and to remove the stigma of drug misuse. On Aug. 15, the Select Board declared Aug. 31 Needham Overdose Awareness Day as well, and town hall will be lit up in purple in observance. 

Tim McDonald, director of health and human services, said it is important to bring community attention to this problem without passing judgment. He said even using the term “misuse” rather than “abuse” changes the way people think about the struggle with these types of substances. 

“We’re not judging them for having a moral failing for being hooked on cigarettes,” said McDonald about stigmatizing language. “You talk about an eating disorder, not a food abuser.”

Last year, Needham held the first event to bring awareness to the growing drug problem, especially with opioids and the deadly synthetic drug fentanyl. 

“We felt it was a really healing thing, certainly for the people who had recently had a loss — or even a long time ago,” said Schmill. “It seemed to be really successful, so we want to make it an annual event and have more resources.”

Removing the stigma is a critical element of the event and an important piece of the Becca Schmill Foundation. Schmill said often people don’t seek treatment or don’t talk about their problems because they’re afraid of how they will be treated. 

“Too often in communities like Needham we think this doesn’t happen here,” she said. “If we want to solve these problems, we need to talk about them and be understanding and accepting.”

Participants visit resource tables at the 2021 Needham Overdose Awareness Vigil / Credit: SPAN

SPAN, whose youth-focused effort is to prevent and reduce substance use, works to reframe the community’s attitude about the perception of the related risks and helps connect people to resources in the area. 

“Community attitudes around alcohol use are a huge challenge in general because the use of alcohol has been so normalized among our adult population,” said Shannon. “Oftentimes with use, it’s intertwined — alcohol, marijuana, vaping, and the intersection with mental health as well.” 

As money from opioid settlement abatement funds becomes available, Shannon hopes to bring in recovery resources to provide regular support to individuals thinking about, are in or are coming out of treatment. In 2022, opioid related overdose deaths in the state were 2.5% higher than the previous peak in 2021, 93% of which were linked to fentanyl poisoning. 

McDonald said once the abatement funds are made available, the health department will engage residents to help set priorities for programming and support in order to create a strategic plan. 

The Needham Overdose Awareness Vigil will begin at 6:30 p.m. at the Memorial Park gazebo. There will be several resource tables and speakers, including Schmill who will be discussing the dangers of fentanyl. In addition to the purple flags, which will be displayed until the morning of Sept. 7, red flags will be available for people to add the names of loved ones lost to overdose.

Schmill said she knows this work is what she needs to be doing now to help prevent other families from having to endure a similar tragedy. “Everybody heals differently and grieves differently. For me, this is what I need to do.” 

Credit: MetroWest Adolescent Health Survey
Credit: MetroWest Adolescent Health Survey
Credit: MetroWest Adolescent Health Survey
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