SANDY — Tennyson Cecchini was an athlete and a manager at Alpine Medical Group before he died of a heroin overdose in 2015.
He was one of the many Utahns who have fallen victim to the opioid epidemic, and his parents say evidence-based solutions could have prevented his death.
Over the last 10 years, Utah has consistently ranked one of the highest in the nation for overdose deaths. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in 2017 the state saw 456 overdose deaths involving opioids.
“It’s a very complicated issue, there are so many things causing these problems,” said his father, Dennis Cecchini, noting that one of these issues was the lack of access to naloxone, a drug that can reverse the effects of a serious opioid overdose.
“Our son would have been alive if we had a naloxone kit,” he said.
Thanks to a law that passed the Utah legislature in 2016, naloxone is now available without a prescription and helped save 46 lives in 2017.
It’s solutions such as these that Cecchini hopes to facilitate through a Play for Life annual fundraising event. “The object is to have fun while we do as much as we possibly can (to stop) this terrible, terrible disease,” he said.
The event, which raises funds through a golf tournament at Sandy’s Hidden Valley Country Club, is now in its second year. Funds raised go toward researching evidence based solutions to addiction as well as scholarship provisions to bring more mental health providers into the field.
“One of the big obstacles to effective treatment and recovery in communities is resources and this tournament is specifically designed to supplement the career paths of those special people who choose to get into the treatment and recovery industry,” said Scott Reed, assistant attorney general and director of the Utah Opioid Task Force.
Cecchini also lauded the role that mental health providers play in substance abuse recovery, noting that most of those suffering from addiction “have a co-occurring mental issue.”
“They are trying to self-medicate to take care of these issues that they cannot cope with,” he said. This was the case with his son, he said, who suffered trauma from sexual abuse as a child.
“He was 5 or 6 and no one ever found the fact that he was suffering from this because children don’t know how to talk (about abuse).”
Cecchini hopes funds raised will help tackle this and many other factors that contribute to addiction by encouraging students to enter the fields of social science, psychology and early childhood education. “The right thing is to get into the schools and help these children before these traumas take over their life,” he said.
Present at the event were Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, and former University of Utah head football coach Ron McBride.
Curtis lauded the efforts of both Democrats and Republicans in the fight against opioids. He compared the present-day battle to the biblical episode of David and Goliath, noting that during his trip to Israel last week with 70 members of Congress, he visited “the valley of Eli, which is where David and Goliath had their battle.”
As he thanked donors for their contributions, he said, “Sometimes this opioid battle feels like Goliath, right? But people like you are Davids.”
Last year the event raised $57,000, which went toward research at the University of Utah’s Neuropsychiatric Institute. Though amounts for this year’s event are still being finalized, Cecchini said organizers expect to provide between $70,000 and $80,000 worth of individual student scholarships to the university’s departments of medicine, social work, social and behavioral science, and education.