Drug overdoses are the leading cause of injury death in America right now. We lose more of our family and community members due to a drug overdose each day than to car accidents and gun violence. With the loss of 144 human beings on a daily basis, I can't help but wonder why we have yet to see a large scale public response to this issue. What is so different about the devastation happening in our living rooms and neighborhoods that isolates it from other national tragedies which have elicited a loud public outcry and swift policy change response? How can over 23.5 million Americans and their families be impacted by addiction yet the communal citizen silence still remain deafening?
We do not see the enormous impact in one swift swoop.
Although we know that a group of human beings large enough to nearly fill a Boeing 747 airplane die a sudden death every single day as a result of an overdose, it doesn't come with a fierce fiery explosion and dramatic loud bang ripe for the evening news. I imagine if we could see all 144 people - if we could know their names, what they wanted to be when they grew up, how old their children were, what their favorite cartoon as a kid was - if we could see them in all of their humanity just dropping to the ground, we may get the enormous impact after all. It is happening - an entire plane full of beautiful people are crashing to the ground every day, but our nation's eyes aren't drawn to it in quite the same way.
There isn't the same "loss of innocent lives" attitude toward those who have died due to a drug overdose.
Despite modern science having shown us that substance use disorder is an illness that lives in the brain and by no means a moral failing, we still view addiction as a choice made by people who have failed. Despite greater understanding about the role that horrific trauma experiences play in the development of a substance use disorder, we still blame the person. We do not extend the same sympathy or compassion to those lives lost because we collectively do not view them as innocent. I imagine if we truly moved passed misinformation, discrimination and stigma, we would see the innate innocence of each and every one of those 144 human beings after all. We would remember that at one time they were just a baby, untouched by the world, and that we are all only a few brain chemicals and experiences removed from their fate.
There isn't a clear direction to place blame or aim out anger.
Despite the overwhelming evidence showing the rise in narcotic pain medication prescribing and subsequent diversion directly correlates with the rise of drug overdose deaths, there isn't one clearly defined single place to point our outrage. Although we have identified faulty practices and policies that have stunted prevention, treatment and recovery efforts, there isn't just one solitary issue to start tackling. It is hard to rally the troops when the enemy is not so clearly known. It's even harder to rally when the enemy can be found in our nation's very own mirror. With so many people dying preventable deaths each day, it is time that we look in the mirror and see the larger systematic issues that have accelerated today's problem. There are many places to direct our anger - we just have to pick one to start.
Sympathy for overdose death survivors often comes with a side dish of judgment, stigma and shaming.
We know that the family of a person living with a substance use disorder is most often rendered powerless, consistently confronted with systematic challenges to getting their loved ones help and by no means the cause of a death due an overdose, yet we treat survivors of overdose deaths slightly different than other accidental death survivors. There aren't as many dinners sent over to the house or people stopping by to offer condolences. Instead in their place we find whispers, judgment and shortcomings in comprehensive community support. Perhaps if we began to truly understand the impact of addiction on the family, we would all light candles and proudly stand with our fellow citizens who have lost a loved one.
In the face of 144 preventable tragedies each day, it is time that we all move toward one united voice, demanding change and demanding it now. It is time to hear the public outcry.