"Below Deck" star Lee Rosbach has been open about his son Josh's death due to opioid overdose, and yesterday he spoke to a forum of lawmakers from Congress about how to take action against the opioid epidemic that is sweeping the nation.
Rosbach joined Florida Congressman John Rutherford for a roundtable forum in front of the Bipartisan Addiction and Mental Health Task Force. There, Rosbach spoke openly about his son's decadeslong struggle with drugs, which began after he was prescribed opioids following an accident, and his eventual death in July 2019.
"It was a hard day for me," Rosbach told TODAY Health. "... I wasn't sure I was going to get through it, but oddly enough, I felt better after it was over, like some sort of therapy."
During his speech, Rosbach recalled finding his son dead, with his beloved dog Champ at his side.
"I remember every second of that day, like a horrific devastating movie scene playing over and over in my head. Except it’s no movie, it’s my reality," Rosbach said during the roundtable. "The sight of my son on the sofa is the first image I see every day when I wake up, and it’s the last thing I picture every night before I fall asleep. This is how I’ve spent every night and every day for the last two years."
Rosbach told TODAY that he chose to speak to the forum because he wanted to encourage lawmakers to take action and hoped that his emotional story would resonate.
"Even though it was virtual, there was not a single person that was looking at their watch or going through their notes," Rosbach said. "You just had 110% of their undivided attention, because they actually cared."
According to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 70,630 Americans died of a drug overdose in 2019. More than 70% of those deaths involved opioids, including synthetic opioids like fentanyl. On average, that's about 200 people per day.
Rosbach said that while he struggled to speak in front of the task force and was "humbled" by the experience of addressing members of Congress, he felt a responsibility to Josh and to other families who are impacted by opioid addiction.
"I wanted to wait until I was sure I was strong, until I could complete it and actually finish what I started," Rosbach said. "And now that I've started, I know that I do have the strength, I possess that strength, to get this done and to make a difference. Whether we save one life, whether we save 10 lives, it's worth it. Somebody has to do something. This can't continue in the direction that it's going."
The opioid epidemic and overdose crisis in the United States has only worsened during the pandemic. Research from the American Medical Association shows that the amount of drug-related deaths increased, while people had a harder time finding treatment.
"We've come through a horrific pandemic," Rosbach said. "But the pandemic is going to go away. This isn't. ... It's ruining so many families. There's not a lot left after something like this happens."
Rosbach said that while speaking, he focused on changes like law enforcement around illicit drugs, reform of the rehabilitation industry and reducing the stigma that drug users face in society.
"We have to get rid of the stigma that's involved with drug addicts," Rosbach said. "Nobody ever tries to shame you because you have cancer. ... You tell somebody, in so many words, that you're a junkie, all they want to do is get as far away as they possibly can. And that has to change. If that doesn't change, we will never affect the real change that has to happen."
In addition to working with lawmakers, Rosbach said that he is attempting to open a new sort of rehabilitation facility where hundreds of drug users can find treatment.
He told TODAY that his "ambitious" plan is to have the facility, currently known as Healing Waters, up and running by the end of 2022.
"We call it Healing Waters because for me, my whole career, there's always been something therapeutic about being on the water, and I don't know anybody that has ever spent any time on the water and didn't get that feeling," Rosbach said. The facility as he described it would be a "floating" structure that allows drug users to get away from "bad influences" in their lives, while focusing on mental health care and providing support and vocational training.
The captain said that he brought up the facility during the congressional forum and felt supported by the response he received.
"There wasn't any one congressman that we spoke to that didn't say 'What can I do? How can I help?' And they all say 'Please stay in touch, let me know, just ask and we'll help you, we'll do what it takes,'" Rosbach said. "That was refreshing. I went to Washington, D.C., with more or less a cynical view on the process, and I came away with a totally different outlook."
Until more reforms are implemented, Rosbach emphasized that all parents should know that their children could face the same struggles as his son.
"I don't believe I've met someone in the last few years who hasn't been affected by the opioid crisis," Rosbach said. "I think it touches everybody. ... I thought for years, 'This can’t happen to me. I’m smarter than that, I’ll see the signs. I’ll know what’s going on. It won’t happen to me and if it does I’ll know how to deal with it.' And look where I am today."