Every 15 minutes, someone in the United States dies of a drug overdose. Our sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers are being lost at a record rate. What are we actually doing about it? I run a large jail and I saw the need to move beyond talk to action last March. My team created in one day what has turned out to be a very unconventional and highly successful recovery program. We are not about the rhetoric, we are about the recovery. I believe that what worked for us can work for many communities – if we put it into action.
If our only goal was to raise awareness of this epidemic, we have done very well. Does that mean we can all sit back and relax now? Should we pat ourselves on our back for raising awareness of this deadly epidemic?
Talk is cheap and while we are talking, many more valuable lives are being lost.
Energizing the dialogue about the opioid and heroin issue is just the bare scratch of a beginning. There has been little to no noticeable downtick in the number of overdoses and deaths. My frustration has grown exponentially as of late with all the talk and rhetoric about how far we have come. I will admit, the word has gotten out. Public awareness is at an all-time high. Great. Now what? Can we get beyond the lip service now? Can we move out of the talking stage to the action stage?
Talk is cheap and while we are talking, many more valuable lives are being lost. This talk is coming at all levels. Here are three examples:
- Last March, Dr. Patrice Harris, the chair-elect of the American Medical Association and the chair of its Task Force to Reduce Opioid Abuse, highlighted the leadership roles that the AMA and individual physicians must play to reduce the deaths from opioid overdoses. She stated, “The AMA’s vision for ending this epidemic starts with a focus on what physicians can do in their practices and in their communities. We not only must take responsibility for ending this epidemic, we must take action to do so.”
- Late last year in my state of Virginia, Virginia Health Commissioner Marissa Levine declared the opioid addiction crisis a public health emergency.
- This March, the President launched a commission to address the nation’s opioid epidemic and appointed New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to serve as its chairman. The Commission will be tasked with outlining recommendations and federal resources to tackle the drug addiction.
We hear the words action, emergency, and tackle, yet I am left wondering: where is the action we’re taking to make a real impact on the number of overdoses and deaths? Where is the sense of urgency? Everyone in our communities should be rallying together to develop care, treatment, prevention, and other services. A little effort here and here isn’t enough to really tackle this issue on a much wider scope.
Now, I realize that if all I do in this article is complain about all the rhetoric without offering solutions, I’m doing the same thing I am complaining about. So I will offer some action items I feel are necessary and well overdue. I don’t have the power to make these changes happen by myself. We need to organize our efforts and turn talk into action. Then, we can act without delay.
What Is Causing The Drug Epidemic?
First, when we look at any issue we are trying to solve, we have to examine what the underlying causes are. What causes heroin and opioid deaths? Addiction. We must develop and implement aggressive prevention efforts to deter individuals from even a one-time use. In-school programs which have to start at an early age, for children around 7 or 8. Currently, programs are used later in life, when peer pressure has already taken hold of our children. These programs have to really hit at the issues and not try to be kid-friendly. Doing this can actually draw some into using drugs by making it attractive.
Prevention cannot be solely focused on youth, either. There must be community-wide prevention programs, billboards, television and radio advertisements, and much more. Our communities must be inundated with messages to stay away from drugs.
Hand-in-hand with any and all prevention messages, there also needs to be an abundance of messages regarding how to get help if you are already an addict. Those resources must be easy to find, quick to find, easily accessible, and low-cost or no cost at all. Drug addiction drop-off centers should accept people regardless of their ability to pay or insurance coverage.
These messages need offer specific help: a number to call, an address to go to. Just telling someone to “get help” without anything else is useless.
A collateral outcome with the mass communication blitz would be the eroding of the stigma that comes with being an addict. Communities will come to realize that addiction exists everywhere: good people in our communities are addicts. We need to normalize addiction prevention and treatment. The more normal it becomes, the more accepting the community can be.
Free and Low-Cost Treatment For People Who Need Help
Treatment opportunities need to be easily accessible throughout our communities, with ease of access. Treatment is not a sole function of local, state, or federal government. The community needs to be proactive in creating treatment opportunities in their own communities.
This is a very unconventional epidemic, so we need to have unconventional treatment opportunities. We need drop off centers, walk-in centers, and even recovery clubs in our schools. There needs to be an abundance of programs such as AA, NA, recovery groups, family groups, and such. Along with career planning, our schools need addiction counselors as well.
Without a place to live, many people can’t get sober. Therefore, we need more temporary housing solutions. These must become much more available in all communities, all over: not just in one part of the state or another. When an addict needs to get to a clean environment, there cannot be a waiting list or an empty void.
Connecting With Churches and Faith Based Communities
I really believe the answer to this problem lies with our churches. Churches and faith based communities are a huge resource left largely untapped. This is where I see us successfully ending the heroin epidemic. There are over 350,000 churches in the United States, an average of about 7,000 churches in every state. This makes them an abundant resource, offering help regardless of someone’s religion or religious beliefs. When an addict needs help, the best time to get them that help is the very moment they ask for it. Addicts should be able to go to any church to ask for this help and be welcomed with open arms. After all, isn’t that the premise of almost every church? That everyone is welcome?
Churches should be trained in how to recognize and respond to an emergency overdose situation. Is it absurd to think churches should stock Narcan? I don’t think so. Churches should also be able to provide other assistance such as addiction recovery tools, access to treatment, and even the ability to link them with professionals who can help. Our church leaders need to be educated about the opioid and heroin issue and become the vocal and focal point for prevention and treatment.
Churches could maintain “safe places” to help addicts secure an alternative place to go, instead of turning to other users for help or returning to their dealer to get more heroin to use. The reality is, the “next time” they use could be fatal.
Finally, church leaders are leaders in their communities and can preach about the dangers of heroin. They can talk about the need for the community to open their arms and work together for a common cause that kills so many.
Not All People With Addiction Are Criminals
The idea that we can arrest our way out of this is absurd and counterproductive. A young man or woman who overdoses from opioids and is rushed to the hospital is the last person who should be arrested for possession. But all too often, they leave the emergency room in handcuffs.
Law enforcement organizations need to be able to respond to the opioid crisis just as they now do for the mental health crisis. Currently, law enforcement personnel across the United States are being educated in how to identify people in a mental health crisis. We’re learning how to look for alternative means to address these mental health situations with drop-off centers or voluntary committals to treatment facilities, instead of just locking someone up. Why is the opioid and heroin crisis any different? Law enforcement should be trained to identify individuals with addiction: we could use a similar approach to those with mental health issues, and look for alternatives to incarceration.
This is not an all-inclusive list, but it is a start. Talk is cheap. With today’s opioid and heroin epidemic, talk is deadly. We can’t afford to wait even another 15 minutes: in that time, one more person will die from an overdose. We are all too willing to remain in the dialogue stage and not move into the stage where we actually make a decision to do something different.
It’s time for action. It’s time for real efforts to help. It’s time to get beyond the problem and move to the solutions.