Putting a human face on the opioid crisis

Inmates in the women’s cellblock at the Fayette County Jail in Washington Court House, Ohio, a state hit hard by the country’s fentanyl crisis. (Salwan Georges/ The Washington Post)

By Lynne Perri

Shelby Hanssen, a researcher and reporter at The Washington Post on Fighting Fentanyl, the Post’s most recent investigation, had to find people who lost loved ones to opioid deaths.

Shelby Hanssen
Shelby Hanssen.

This was the second story in the series she worked on at the Post, where she has been in a graduate practicum since September under the direction of Post reporter John Sullivan. He is also on the faculty at American University and a senior editor at the Workshop.

Sullivan assigned Hanssen to work with reporter Scott Higham and several of his colleagues to interview family members of those who have died since 2017 when Trump took office.

Hanssen used news clips to find families who spoke out at the time, and then tracked down their contact information through her own searches and with the help of Alice Crites, a longtime researcher at the Post.

The story was a broader government accountability project, which included health experts’ criticism of the Trump administration’s failure to develop a comprehensive drug strategy, although Congress has increased spending for drug treatment and more traffickers are being prosecuted. But “I wanted to make sure there is a human face on the crisis. Most people were really receptive and wanted to get the word out,” she said.

Many were willing to spend time with her because “I think they wanted to make sure I got the full picture of the person I was writing about,” she added.

Some of the victims suffered from a long-term addiction but others started with a surgical procedure,  then became addicted to pain pills before turning to heroin and synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl — which is 50 times more powerful than heroin.

As a former worker in shelters for domestic-violence victims, Hanssen knew it could be hard to talk to people in crisis situations. But as a journalist, she also knew that getting their stories out was her job: “For me, it was a matter of listening more than talking,” she said, and being respectful of their boundaries.

“I did feel sad because I had moms on the phone with me who were crying … but I had a job to do,” she said, “and was hoping the impact of the story at the end was ultimately more important than how I was feeling at all.”

Nearly 70,000 people died between 2013 and 2017 from fentanyl and other synthetic opioids. The Post is interested in collecting more personal stories; you can submit information here.

And to learn more, watch Post reporters explain how the crisis has gotten out of control in “The Fentanyl Failure” video.