By Simone Greene
In 2014, Justin Phillips spoke out. She spoke about losing her son Aaron and she bravely shared how he died: a heroin overdose. While it doesn’t seem like it was that long ago, back then, people didn’t talk about drug use and they certainly didn’t talk about the related loss experienced by so many. “I told Aaron’s story because I didn’t want another mother to have to feel my pain,” says Justin.
She saw her son struggle with substances at an early age. Throughout the years, Aaron used marijuana and Justin would fight with him about this regularly. Justin was not aware that Aaron was abusing heroin until he admitted that he had been using the drug for 8 months and could not stop on his own. Aaron expressed his strong desire to receive help.
Aaron knew “recovery was possible because you and Dad have shown me recovery is possible.” Both have been in recovery since before their children were born. Yet the shame, stigma, and denial that are present in families suffering from substance use disorder are powerful. And even more prevalent then was the complete misinformation and lack of knowledge around opioids and the death sentence that can accompany them. Justin tried all she knew to help her son: tough love, a trip to rehab and constant support. As she tried to help Aaron, Justin was continuously met with stigma and misinformation. Despite all her efforts, Aaron died in 2013 at the young age of 20.
In 2014, Justin founded Overdose Lifeline to honor Aaron and to help her community. Overdose Lifeline is dedicated to helping individuals, families, and communities affected by the disease of addiction through advocacy, education, harm reduction, prevention, resources and support.
Justin educated herself and learned more and more about addiction. For instance, it wasn’t until after Aaron’s death that she became aware of the life-saving drug, naloxone, which reverses the effects of an opioid overdose. Her first priority was to make sure that everyone knew what naloxone was and to make it accessible. In 2015, she got “Aaron’s Law” passed, increasing public access to naloxone. To date, Overdose Lifeline has distributed over 20,000 naloxone kits to first responders and the community, saving thousands of lives in the process.
Overdose Lifeline recognized that naloxone is not the only way to save someone from an overdose; prevention is an important tool as well. The organization developed the “This is (Not) About Drugs” curriculum, the first youth prevention education program addressing the opioid epidemic. Using an outcome-based, science-based brief intervention, the goal of the program is to delay adolescent use of substances. The program was named as a promising program by SAMHSA’s Center for Substance Abuse. It is clearly doing something right. In just a few short years, This is (Not) About Drugs has over 350 delivery partners, is available in over 20 states and has reached more than 30,000 students.
Justin has testified in front of Congress numerous times and won many awards, including a White House Champions of Change Award. However, the primary mission of Overdose Lifeline is to carry the message of hope to individuals, families, and communities affected by the disease of addiction. Justin concludes, “I want people to recognize addiction as they would any other disease. We should not let the stigma keep us from talking about this completely preventable and treatable disease. I can’t bring Aaron back but through Overdose Lifeline, I can work hard on behalf of individuals affected by the disease of addiction and their families to assure adequate resources and support exists.” Through her work, Justin is offering a much-needed lifeline to her community.
Overdose Lifeline was a featured award winner in the 2019 Innovation Now project of the Addiction Policy Forum.
Simone Greene works to highlight best practices and innovators in the field of addiction through her work at Addiction Policy Forum. Prior to joining, she was a project coordinator for The Moss Group, a correctional consulting firm based in Washington, DC. She received her master’s degree in Forensic and Legal Psychology from Marymount University.