NOPE Candle Light Vigils raise awareness, decrease stigmas

On a cold fall evening in October, I and several of my classmates gathered to spend an hour or so outside – away from our studies and our own goings-on. We had gathered not to celebrate the latest win in football but to remember the lives of those lost and those suffering from substance misuse. That cold night in October, we set aside other things we had going on to attend a NOPE Candle Light Vigil.

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The Narcotics Overdose Prevention & Education (NOPE) Task Force was started as a result of a growing number of drug overdose deaths in Florida. Thanks to the help of Richard and Karen Perry and Maryann Carey, the non-profit organization was created to provide educational and treatment resources to students and community members relating to the misuse of prescription drugs, opiates, and other substances, according to the NOPE Task Force web site (www.nopetaskforce.org). The Perry family was driven to do something to make a difference by the loss of their son, Richard, to a drug overdose.

For the past eight years, communities across the country have been hosting NOPE Candle Light Vigils to remember those who have died from substance misuse and raise awareness about the consequences of misusing prescription and illicit drugs. In addition to raising awareness, the Vigil also seeks to reduce the stigma associated with addiction. The Vigils coincide with the start of Red Ribbon Week, a national campaign started in 1988 to raise awareness about illegal drug use (redribbon.org).

Kelsey Kresser, a second-year student pharmacist at The Ohio State University College of Pharmacy, was inspired to host  the first NOPE Candle Light Vigil at Ohio State in 2012 after hearing NOPE Task Force founder Karen Perry speak at the Generation Rx University Conference earlier that year.

Members of The Generation Rx Collaborative (l-r) Julianne Mazzola, Kelsey Kresser, and Bethany Hipp, which hosted the NOPE Candle Light Vigil at Ohio State on October 21, 2014

Members of The Generation Rx Collaborative, including (l-r) Julianne Mazzola, Kelsey Kresser, and Bethany Hipp, hosted the NOPE Candle Light Vigil at Ohio State on October 21, 2014.

“Her story of how she lost her son, Rich, to an overdose really touched me and inspired me to bring more awareness about this issue to our campus,” Kresser said. “I hope that by continuing this event, we are bringing down some of the barriers to recovery and eliminating the stigmas surrounding addiction.”

At Ohio State, we had the opportunity to hear from Melissa O’Harra Brown and Wayne Campbell. Both are parents who lost college-aged children to drug overdose. In an attempt to raise awareness about the prevention and dangers of drug misuse, Brown and Campbell created organizations in their children’s honor, Hope Blooms and Tyler’s Light, respectively. These organizations are dedicated to educating the public about this serious public health issue.

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Melissa O’Harra Brown and Wayne Campbell, of Hope Blooms and Tyler’s Light, respectively, shared their stories at the October 21st event.

“It was very empowering seeing [parents] face the tragedy of losing their child and try to make good from it,” said Amy Olander, a third-year student pharmacist and Vigil attendee. “This really opens my eyes to how important awareness and sharing stories is.”

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NOPE Candle Light Vigil attendees had the opportunity to hear from speakers whose lives were directly affected by the misuse of drugs.

After they spoke, my classmates and I gathered in a circle with lit candles in one hand and stories of lives lost in another. We stood together as a “living wall” to honor parents, children, friends – people who are no longer with us. In that moment of silence, it was their lives we remembered.

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This may have been one event on one night, but it instilled a powerful impetus to spread awareness about the issue of substance misuse, according to Divya Verma, a third-year student pharmacist who has helped run the event since its inception in 2012.

“…Putting a face to drug abuse inspires and drives us to educate and protect our community,” she said. “Hearing Tyler’s Light and Hope Blooms share their powerful stories resonates with me that anyone can be affected by drug abuse and addiction, and it’s essential that… we help treat addiction as any major other disease state to save lives in the long run.”

With the misuse of drugs being a leading cause of death in this country, it is imperative that both health care providers and the general public are aware of the issue and its consequences. We must use available resources to arm ourselves with information to assist those who need help and to prevent the progression of addiction so we don’t have more stories like Richard Perry’s, Hannah Brown’s and Tyler Campbell’s. The Candle Light Vigil helped remind us of the task at hand.

Photos courtesy of Emily Keeler.

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