Let overdose deaths not be in vain, but a catalyst to greater action

By Dean Scher, Ph.D., CEO, Catholic Charities Community Services of Orange and Sullivan

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My heart ached when reading the news of five deaths by opioid overdose in one weekend — lives cut short — families and children left behind in the aftermath.

The opiate crisis has reached pandemic proportions. In 2016, 64,000 people in the United States died from drug overdoses — a 22 percent increase over the previous year. Drug overdoses are expected to remain the leading cause of death for Americans under 50, as synthetic opioids — primarily fentanyl — continue to push the death count higher. Last year, 88 people died of opioid-related overdoses in Orange County.

Addiction knows no boundaries or demographics. We all know someone who has been affected (one in 10 Americans suffers from a substance use disorder). Addiction reflects the brain's inability to regulate pain, both emotional and physical. It is a chronic, complex disease, like diabetes or heart disease. No one really understands what causes addiction. We do know that genetics, socio-cultural, and economic factors play a significant role in the development of addiction. Like other diseases, not everyone will find recovery the first time. Relapse rates are between 40 percent and 60 percent for substance use disorders in general, and 80 percent for heroin.

Sadly, the stigma of addiction is often a barrier for accessing treatment. No one should have to hide in shame when they, or a loved one, are suffering. Fortunately, we know much more about the treatment of the disease than its cause, and a robust continuum of treatment exists. In our region, available treatment services include detox, residential, day rehabilitation, and outpatient therapy. All of these levels of care offer medication-assisted treatment (including Suboxone, Vivitrol, and Methadone), a tool that helps regulate brain function and promotes recovery. In isolation, medication-assisted treatment is an insufficient tool; it is most effective when coupled with person-centered, evidence-based talking therapy.

The fight against opiates has brought increased attention, and resources, from federal, state, and local governments. There have been positive legislative changes to address the pervasive over-prescribing of narcotics, funding to provide increased community-based services, such as peer advocates and recovery coaches, and a deeper appreciation for the valuable role of prevention and education services. Additionally, considerable focus, by all levels of government, has been placed on health care collaboration to improve treatment outcomes.

There are situations where incarceration is no doubt the appropriate action; however, treatment is a far better option than incarceration for many. Unfortunately, resources have not been adequately funneled into the criminal justice system to expand programs that provide alternatives to incarceration, like drug treatment court, Treatment Alternatives for Safer Communities, and probation. Drug-related crimes account for nearly 50 percent of those currently incarcerated.

The United States writes more prescriptions for opiates than any other nation in the world. As a nation, the rapid expansion of technology use, the increased educational emphasis on test scores, and the growing complexity of life, as examples, draws our attention away from emotional-refueling activities and family supports. In the battle against addiction, considerably greater resources must be infused into prevention and education, from pre-school through high school. We must teach our youth the necessary skills to better identify and regulate their feelings in order to more effectively respond when faced with life challenges.

We must invest in the future of our children and the future of our society. Orange County District Attorney David Hoovler recognizes that battling the opioid epidemic requires education, treatment, and enforcement. Let us put our collective attention on ensuring our educational system provides our youth with the tools they need to more successfully navigate life.

Our friends, neighbors, and loved ones are dying at an alarming rate. Let their deaths not be in vain, but rather a catalyst to spur us to greater action, so that there is hope for those who are battling their disease or journeying to recovery.

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