The front page New York Times headline “Drug Overdoses Propel Rise In Mortality Rates of Whites” ( January 17, 2016) is just one of many stories now cropping up in print, television and online these days. Just this past Sunday evening, the CBS news program 60 Minutes featured a story titled “Heroin in the Heartland.” All of the families interviewed were white, upper-middle-class Ohioans whose teen and young adult children were lost – permanently – to heroin.
In one of the interviews, Mike DeWine, Attorney General of Ohio, stated: “It’s in every single county. It’s in our cities. But it’s also in our wealthier suburbs. It’s in our small towns. There is no place in Ohio where you can hide from it.”
It’s encouraging to encounter good reporting about heroin and opioid addiction like this 60 Minutes piece that highlights some of these important facts:
1). Addiction is as much a disease of the brain as it is a manifestation of unhealthy choices.
2). Because of the stigma attached to heroin, addicts go to great lengths to conceal their use.
3). Many become addicted due to an unparalleled rise in the prescription of opiates and opiate-derivative painkillers.
4). There are multiple factors to consider where the heroin epidemic is concerned. And while it may be tempting to blame one factor — the addict, the doctors, the drugs, drug cartels, society — it’s never that simple.
I was also taken by the observations of a grieving mother in the 60 Minutes piece whose child had overdosed on heroin. A Registered Nurse, she confessed (with clear pain and humility) that she had participated in the over-prescription of opioids in the mid-to-late 1980’s. She also noted the hypocrisy with which we, as a society, criminalize some addictions (opioids) and not others (sugar, nicotine, etc.).
It’s also nice to see recent reports dispelling one of the biggest misconceptions about addiction: that it only affects less-educated, or poorer individuals.
The New York Times article I referenced above, for example, reports that it’s whites in the 25-34 age group that have been shown to be the most significantly impacted by opioid addiction in recent years. Pain mismanagement and illicit heroin use are prominent in this group. And, interestingly, non-whites are far less likely to be prescribed the doses and frequency of their white counterparts, as the article goes on to reveal. (Discrimination, ironically, is protecting minorities from the ravages of opioid addiction!)
What these reports don’t tell us, however, is the much larger reality that addiction is woven into the very fabric of our society. The U.S. remains at the top of the world market both for illicit drugs imported from abroad and for legal pharmaceuticals produced by companies right here at home. Our attention to outside factors is important, but it distracts us from the ground where we often fall miserably short: our homes and our communities.
For as thoughtful and well-reported as recent stories have been, they often don’t go beyond sounding the alarm. And while policy decisions and educational efforts are important, they often don’t look closely enough at what individuals facing addiction can do to get help. As a Licensed Addictions Counselor who has been helping families and individuals for the past 25+ years, I can tell you that the single most important key to healing and recovery will always be families and friends. Family and friends are the vanguard of this epidemic. It’s my hope that future reporting will look more into the ways that families can help stop this epidemic through intervention and counseling.
David Petersen, LCSW, LAC, January 26, 2016