Seizing the Opportunity In America’s Opioid Crisis

The overdose epidemic in the U.S. has been called “the greatest public health crisis of our time.” It’s also our greatest opportunity.

The opioid crisis is an identity crisis: it’s a challenge to how we see ourselves. Do we truly believe that we are all in this together? One answer leads us deeper into despair. The other, into a hopeful future.

It’s been said that “doing more things faster is no substitute for doing the right things.” What are the “right things,” the measures that can resolve the crisis, not just postpone it? The right actions come from the right thoughts. Those thoughts come from feelings, and feelings are never right or wrong. But there are some feelings we are born with. They are our birthright. And one of them is love.

The Kindness of Strangers

“Hatred never ceases by hatred, but by love alone is healed.” — The Buddha

Behind the opioid epidemic is a prevailing lack of compassion, of caring about everyone equally. At the heart (or lack of it) of this societal disease is rampant inequality. The social determinants of health: stress, unemployment, lack of support, poor health care, etc. are major drivers of addiction. Many authors promote this view, including Gabor Mate, Bruce Alexander, Sam Quinones, Robert Putnam, and Harry Nelson.

Our increasing fragmentation affects everyone, poor or rich.

“Drug overdose is the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of fifty…Our material lives may be outwardly prosperous, but our psychological and spiritual lives are in freefall. What is driving us to self-destruction? There are many factors, all with one unifying theme: we are no longer living in community with one another and, consequently, we are lonely.” — Francie Hart Broghammer

We all hunger for the same thing. The question is this: do we love our neighbor as ourselves? That’s not just a commandment; it’s a requirement. How do we rebuild community? First, by taking full responsibility for the fallout of not being one.

For Whom the Boom Tolls

“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.” — Pema Chodron

I live in Asheville, a city that has recently, like the opioid crisis, exploded. Tourism is at an all-time high, and Asheville has appeared in dozens of destination top ten lists. It has also been ranked second in the country in gentrification.

Asheville sits in the heart of Appalachia, where the opioid crisis is at its worst. In 2017, North Carolina had the second highest increase in opioid deaths in the country. The Blue Ridge Parkway runs through town and I spend a lot of time there, mostly foraging. That’s where last summer, for the first time, I found not mushrooms, but needles.

Despite the crisis, the city just spent six months trying to shut down the local syringe exchange. The same thing is happening in other cities. In Asheville, the exchange had been operating without incident for over two years — until the houseless (a.k.a., homeless) in adjacent areas were kicked out to make way for new development.

Addiction depends on denial. What if development is the real addiction? Will we face up to the dark side of gentrification or just try to make it “go away?”

If a canary dies in a coal mine, you don’t blame the canary. Yet blaming the victim is exactly what we’ve been doing.

License to Ill

“A man came to the Rabbi and said, ‘Rebbe, my son has turned against me. What should I do?’ The rabbi said, ‘love him even more.’” — Hasidic story

Most people by now have heard that naloxone (Narcan) can prevent a deadly overdose. So many Americans are dying — often from a mix of drugs, but mainly due to opioids — that naloxone should be as ubiquitous as aspirin. Everyone using a drug that may contain opioids should carry it like an EPI pen. And with the increasing prevalence of fentanyl, a single dose may not be enough. Everyone should know how to tell how much naloxone to give someone in the midst of an overdose. This should be basic, universal knowledge.

But keeping someone alive is just the beginning. In fact, while naloxone may be physically safe, it does have one significant side effect: precipitated withdrawal. And not helping someone through it is like catching them from falling only to drop them from higher up.

A Devil’s Bargain

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” — Ian Maclaren

As one response coordinator describes it, precipitated withdrawal is like “the worst flu you’ve had… times 100.” For some, the feeling is so bad that they find themselves dying, so to speak, to use again.

“To the uninformed, it is inconceivable that someone who nearly died from a drug would run out that very same day and buy more of it. Narcan works by binding to opioid receptors, blocking the effect of narcotics like heroin. In drug users with a physical dependency, it also has the effect of causing severe withdrawal symptoms. This all but guarantees that the first thing a user will think of after their overdose is reversed is getting another fix…” — Christopher Moraff

Naloxone is not just a “bandaid on a bullet hole.” It can feel like ripping open a wound. For “withdrawal is the very situation that [users] are seeking to avoid in the first place.”

“A dose of naloxone,” according to the Chief Medical Officer for a Connecticut health agency, “is a chance. But if it’s not coupled with immediate offers of treatment, it may be a slim chance that leaves the revived individual running back to the same dealer who sold them their last lethal dose.”

Overdose survivors need more than a second (or third) chance: they need a parachute.

When you’re in free fall, a little more time isn’t much help…

Find out why Alan feels we should take responsibility for the opioid crisis — and why this crisis is an opportunity and a “wake-up call” — in the original article The Opioid Crisis Is Our Greatest Opportunity at The Fix.

Related Articles