COLUMBIA, S.C. — "A lot of it stemmed from anxiety and depression," Janet Smoak said. "But he found something that worked for him, as he was self-medicating. I hate to say it that way. But ultimately, that's what my son was doing."
Janet Smoak's son Justin struggled with drug use for years and underwent multiple rehab programs. His life was cut short at 24 years old after unknowingly buying a pill laced with fentanyl two years ago.
"I was not aware of fentanyl," Smoak said. "I wish I had known what fentanyl was before Justin passed away. I wish I knew the dangers of fentanyl. I wish I knew that it didn't have an odor, it didn't have a taste.. It makes me angry and it makes me want to find my voice more and more. We have to stop the stigma. We have to stop being silent. This drug is killing our children."
DHEC says South Carolina has experienced increased drug overdose deaths over the past decade. Their most recent data says over 2100 South Carolinians died from overdose in 2021.
"A lot of the people that are experiencing overdose and drug poisoning deaths, they were not drug users," said Jade Watford. "They were not addicted. It was the very first time that they tried something."
Jade Watford lost her brother Taylor to fentanyl poisoning in 2018.
"He was, you know, Mr. Popular," Watford said. "There was no such thing as a stranger to him. When he was sober for the two years before he passed away, he was really active in the Midlands recovery community, picking people up, taking them to meetings and he was just really big on empowering people to pursue a life of recovery."
She and more of Taylor's friends and family now run the Taylor Watford Foundation in his memory.
They work to educate individuals and families about drug use and addiction. Janet Smoak is one of the community members affected by overdoses that the organization has worked with.
"We teach them how to have conversations about drugs, the facts about drugs, for a lot of them that is the first time that they are hearing this information," Watford said. "Last week, we had an education event, and there were lots of youth there with their families. And so it's great to know that, that's 10 or 20 more families that- this has been prevented."
They hold a 5k each May and an annual Hope Cup golf tournament in September to fundraise for these educational events.
Smoak recently attended one of the events and said she learned something, too.
"There's still every single day something to learn," Smoak said. "Parents need to understand what's out there. What the challenges are for their teenagers, their young adults and even their young children today."
SC DHEC asks all South Carolinians to only take prescriptions from a valid pharmacy with a prescription from a medical provider, familiarize themselves with overdose symptoms and signs, keep naloxone around and learn how to use it.