Talking about drug overdose deaths is never easy, but certain realities of this epidemic are even more difficult to wrap my head around. Accidental drug overdose is now the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50. The most recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that in 2016 over 64,000 people died from accidental drug overdose. This number exceeds the count for the previous year, which was 52,000. This represents a 19% increase in the number of drug overdose deaths from the previous year. But there’s a statistical fact that is even worse; for Americans aged 12 to 17, accidental drug overdose deaths are up as well, 19% to be exact. It is extremely worrisome to think that 12-17 year olds, or adolescents, are in the same horrible situation that adults are in. These statistics indicate that addiction is skyrocketing at a similar pace all across the United States for not only adults, but for adolescents as well, and at the exact same rate. This absolutely demands a response that should entail a new and improved approach backed by science and research.
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What is being done to stop drug overdose deaths?
Many states have passed legislation referred to as “Good Samaritan” laws. These laws encourage people to dial 911 when someone is overdosing on drugs, rather than simply leaving the scene and not getting involved out of fear. This happens all too often. People using drugs believe that if they call for an ambulance the police will show up and arrest them for possession or worse, and this is because it has happened before. It’s not uncommon for police to arrest and charge whoever is there at the time, regardless of the fact that they were the one to dial 911 and save the addict’s life, or that they stayed on the scene to perform CPR while waiting for the paramedics to arrive. Police will also often arrest and charge the overdose victim with a crime and take them to jail once they are alert and well enough. This serves absolutely no purpose, and only scares people away from doing the right thing and potentially saving a life.
Our criminal justice system fails addicts
I remember when I overdosed in Camden, NJ. I was lucky enough to be using with a friend who was willing to call the police regardless of any fear he may have experienced. I woke up handcuffed to a hospital bed and was charged with possession of heroin. I was forced to pay thousands of dollars for a private attorney to defend me in court and ended up having to pay thousands of dollars in fines and fees. They put me on unsupervised probation, emphasis on unsupervised. They didn’t require me to submit to a single drug test, all they did was collect my money every month; how did this help anyone? They didn’t recommend or mandate treatment, they didn’t force or encourage me to sit down with a social worker, they didn’t even tell me to go to 12-step meetings. They took a bad experience and made it worse, and wasted an opportunity to intervene in my life and try to get me some help when I was most likely to agree to it given the circumstances. That’s the “war on drugs” for you, but I digress.
The government has also taken action against doctors that over-prescribe opioids. There are stringent federal regulations that administer heavy sanctions against any doctor who writes prescriptions for painkillers too often in an effort to line their pocket. Also, the government has made an effort to ensure that pharmacies provide free Narcan to the public. They have also funded community-training programs to ensure that the public knows where to obtain Narcan and more importantly, how to use it in an emergency. All of this is necessary and certainly helpful to some extent, but where is the effort on the prevention side? What are we doing to make sure that people don’t become addicts in the first place, and what are we doing to intervene on the younger addicts who haven’t yet experienced the worst of the possible consequences of addiction yet?
What are we doing to prevent addiction?
One trend we are seeing in the adult population is an increase in identification of addiction and risk factors for addiction. But we are also seeing exactly the opposite in adolescents. There has been a decrease in adolescents accessing treatment at the same time that opioid overdose deaths are increasing; there is something terribly wrong with this picture. This proves that we are being reactive to this crisis, rather than being proactive. This is the wrong approach. Addiction is very difficult to treat once it has progressed to the later stages, which is why intervention on adolescents is so vital to our success in stopping this epidemic. The only real prevention effort we have in place for adolescents (D.A.R.E.) has been proven to be empirically ineffective, yet schools renew this program year after year. Honesty in education is extremely important; if you lie to kids about drugs, you lose their trust forever on the subject. So even if you start doing things the right way eventually, it becomes irrelevant.
Many schools allocate a certain portion of their budget for hiring a specialist to deal with substance abuse issues. The problem is that more often than not these “specialists” are stretched extremely thin because they play multiple roles within the same district. They might be the English teacher, the soccer coach, and the substance abuse, specialist. They end up getting stretched far too thin to be ultimately effective. This is a sad reality when you think about it because they are taking a very serious position and allowing it to be prioritized incorrectly. These specialists could be saving kids from future lives of torment as drug addicts, but instead, most school districts are more worried about test scores and athletic programs. There is also a certain level of denial; “our school district doesn’t have a problem with drugs”. They may feel this way because they are academically and/or athletically strong, most of their students go on to great colleges or the district is located within an affluent community.
One thing that should be made abundantly clear to people is that addiction can be treated. Addiction is not a death sentence. But it is also worth coming to terms with the fact that it’s easier to keep someone from becoming an addict than it is to bring them out of the horrors of active addiction. We know a lot about how and why kids go on to become addicts, so we need to develop programs that utilize this knowledge. The most important goal any school should have is to keep their students safe. Decreasing the overdose death rate among adolescents should be priority number one right now.
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