South Hadley woman recognized as ‘unsung heroine’ for preventing youth substance abuse

  • Karen Walsh Pio was honored as an “unsung heroine” by the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women this month. She has led the South Hadley Drug & Alcohol Prevention Coalition since 2005. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 02, 2019

SOUTH HADLEY — In recognition of almost 15 years working to prevent youth substance abuse in South Hadley, Karen Walsh Pio, coordinator of the South Hadley Drug & Alcohol Prevention Coalition, was honored at the State House as an “unsung heroine” on June 18. 

The Unsung Heroine awards are given by the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women to recipients who make a notable impact on their communities, but whose accomplishments might typically fly under the radar. Walsh Pio was nominated by State Rep. Dan Carey, and received the honor alongside 134 other women from across the state. 

Walsh Pio originally came to South Hadley public schools in response to an opioid-related death in 2004. At the time, a Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey administered at South Hadley High School found that 8.7 percent of students said they had tried heroin at least once or twice. As of 2015, Walsh Pio said this figure had fallen to below 1 percent.

The commission noted that Walsh Pio has worked with other community members on initiatives such as establishing a permanent medication drop box in the police station, ensuring that all school nurses have Narcan in their offices, banning the sale of flavored tobacco products, and raising the town’s legal age of tobacco purchase to 21 before the state raised the legal age to 21 in December 2018. 

Walsh Pio first began working in the area of youth substance abuse prevention in 1992 as the director of Providence Behavioral Health Hospital’s outpatient program. At the time, oxycodone-class opiates “were first emerging as drugs of abuse,” she said. 

“It was clear even then that substance use was a real problem for kids,” Walsh Pio said, “and it was just increasing.”

Parents needed help, she added, and “not everyone working in the field of insurance claims was clear that this was a medical issue.”

Since the 1990s, Walsh Pio said the understanding of addiction has improved, and more people have joined efforts to fight youth substance abuse. 

“The work that I’ve done in the schools since 2005 has evolved from a number of concerned people who were mostly school-connected, or who mostly had a teenager of their own, to a wider, community-based model,” Walsh Pio said.

Walsh Pio also works as a psychiatric social worker and clinician at River Valley Counseling Center in Holyoke.