Advisers struck by opioid crisis seek to get the word out to peers and their communities

Financial advisers who've lost loved ones to drugs are responding as forces of positive change

Jan 9, 2018 @ 4:57 pm

By Greg Iacurci

Jeffrey Johnston's stepson Seth as a senior in high school. He died of a heroin overdose at age 23.
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Jeffrey Johnston's stepson Seth as a senior in high school. He died of a heroin overdose at age 23.

Colin Goodell's drug problem sounded all too familiar. It began with a seemingly innocuous prescription for painkillers. Before long, he was hooked on the pills, meant as a temporary remedy for a back injury. The Jacksonville, Fla., resident tried to get clean but ultimately relapsed and bought drugs on the street. He died of an overdose at age 38.

Now, his widow, Cheryl Canzanella, a brokerage director at MassMutual, is channeling her grief by raising awareness of the opioid crisis among financial advisers and of the financial scourge that drug addiction can unleash on families.

"My idea is to go ahead and start sharing our story, educating, and giving advice on ways of how the role of the financial adviser will play out with this epidemic," Ms. Canzanella, 39, said.

She's not alone in her outreach. As drug addiction and overdoses devastate increasing numbers of Americans, financial advisers who've lost loved ones to opioids have been actively sharing their stories to help their local communities beat back the epidemic.

"I feel it's what I can do to give back," said Jeffrey Johnston, the president of Premier Investments of Iowa Inc., whose stepson Seth died of a heroin overdose in 2016. He was 23.

"I can teach people how to invest money, but if I can get people to change their behavior toward addiction, that's my true calling," Mr. Johnston said.

Drug overdoses killed more than 64,000 people in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For context, that's more than U.S. military fatalities in Vietnam and Iraq combined. Of those, 42,000 were attributable to opioids, which include prescription painkillers like OxyContin and illicit drugs like heroin. The death toll from opioids was the highest year on record and more than five times the total in 1999, according to the CDC. In October, the Trump administration declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency.

A recent InvestmentNewsinvestigation uncovered how financial advisers are increasingly being drawn into the crisis. Not only can addiction wreak havoc on a clients' finances, sometimes to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars, but advisers are uniquely positioned to spot signs of financial exploitation and erratic or unusual behavior from clients that can be traced to the opioid epidemic.

(More: Opioid addiction poses moral, legal challenges for advisers)

In Pennsylvania, one of the states hardest hit by opioids, the Department of Banking and Securities, the state's financial services regulator, issued a bulletin in November titled "Opioid Epidemic: Its Impact on Investment Advisers, Their Clients, and Firms." It contains guidance on how advisers can offer help to clients affected by opioid abuse and spot potential financial exploitation.

"There's a pretty high probability that advisers' clients, in some way or another, have been touched by the epidemic," said Ms. Canzanella of MassMutual, where she's worked for six years in an adviser-facing role. "We can have a very big impact on something that right now people are not talking about."

Ms. Canzanella is planning to make presentations about opioids at upcoming regional meetings held by two different groups: the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors and the Women in Insurance and Financial Services. She also hopes to speak on the subject at NAIFA's national conference.

(More: One family's story of addiction — and finding their way out)

Following his stepson's death, Mr. Johnston, 51, began volunteering for the Area Substance Abuse Council, a nonprofit organization in Iowa where his son received drug treatment. He is a member of its board of directors. He aims to help addicts develop positive coping mechanisms rather than turn to drugs and alcohol to solve their problems. Mr. Johnston and his family have helped raise more than $20,000 for the nonprofit.

Mr. Johnston's outreach to date has been in his local community, but he welcomes the opportunity to be a resource to financial advisers, perhaps at industry conferences, similar to Ms. Canzanella.

John W. Brower, a financial adviser based in Astoria, N. Y. started the John Brower Jr. Foundation in 2015, after losing his 25-year-old son to opioid addiction. The foundation partnered with a New York-area organization called Outreach and has raised nearly $100,000 to help combat the opioid epidemic.

"We're working with other foundations doing the same thing we are, and try to make a difference in somebody else's life," Mr. Brower said in a video interview with InvestmentNews. "This way John didn't die in vain."

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