The pain and hardships of opiate addiction, its causes, and the seemingly endless road to recovery some addicts face were all topics tackled on Tuesday night by the film "Junk," a short documentary produced by recent Southern Oregon University graduate Kyle Simpson as part of his senior capstone project. Simpson, who identifies as a recovering heroin addict, used his personal experiences in the film to break the stigma surrounding addicts. Now over three years sober, he attempted to identify root causes of opiate addiction in Jackson County, its economic effects, and how to prevent it from happening in the future.

The screening, followed by a panel discussion of key players in the film, packed the Meese Auditorium on the SOU campus with more than 160 people, forcing some audience members to sit on the floor. “I didn’t realize that it was going to get this kind of response at all,” said Simpson.

The film addressed the effect of over-prescribing pain medications to patients and how it can lead patients to favor the use of illicit drugs when their prescription runs out. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drug overdoses killed more than 50,000 people in the U.S. last year, a death toll higher than that resulting from car accidents.

“I’ve put people in jail before because I thought they were going to die,” said Judge Lisa Greif during an interview in the film. “Sometimes, unfortunately, jail is the only option we have.”

The film concluded with the message that dangerous pain killers are being over-prescribed, patients are developing high tolerances, resulting in jail time and potentially trapping them in a cycle of incarceration. “Once we begin to accept addicts into our society and treat addicts with love and compassion we can begin to find a solution,” stated Simpson, narrating the film.

Panel members included Simpson himself; Jim Shames, M.D., Jackson County medical director; Laura Heesacker, licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), behavioral health consultant; Patrick Devlin, LCSW, program director and therapist for Dragonfly Transitions; Judge Lisa Greif, Jackson County Circuit Court judge; and Lee Ayers, Ph.D, SOU Professor of Criminology.

“I think that one of the things that struck me about the video was the level of vulnerability that you were willing to come forward with,” said Heesacker following the screening. “Vulnerability breeds empathy, and empathy is where the magic happens.”

“I have my own view of addiction, I got out relatively unscathed,” Simpson recalled. “But talking to parents who’ve lost kids, talking to people who have to deal with drug addicts in jail and treatment, it’s real. It became a very heavy reality.”

After a brief review of the film, panel members fielded questions about the growing epidemic of addiction and how to stop it. Professor Ayers explained that, although she had been learning about addiction her whole life, she had never expected it to end up in her own home. “As a parent struggling with a child that had an addiction you don’t know who to call. If he needed a kidney I’d give him one, but he needs so much more and I didn’t know what to do for him,” she said.

“Treatment isn’t always the answer,” she continued. “It takes more than just taking the horse to water, they have to know how to get back.”

“Addiction is a disease of disconnection or isolation, and the solution is through connection,” said panelist Patrick Devlin. He recalled the moment when he was first put into a detox center. After a worker showed him his room, he shook his hand and said “I’m glad you’re here.”

In that moment Devlin said “he was able to cut through that bubble of isolation that addiction had put me in.”

“Being able to connect on a human level with people is just so important,” said Simpson. “Being aware that this is an issue, and just trying to help in anyway you can.”

Ashland freelance writer Hannah Jones is editor of The Siskiyou, the Southern Oregon University student-run news website. Email her at hannah.m.jones21@gmail.com.