Statistics show that more than 115 Americans a day die after overdosing on opioids. Opioids are a class of drugs that include both illegal drugs like heroin and legal prescription pain relievers such as codeine and morphine.
We are told that we have an opioid crisis that needs immediate solutions such as suing drug manufacturers, spending more on drug treatment centers, making drugs like Narcan more available to reverse the overdose if given in time, prescribing few-in any-opioids after surgery, adding more drug education in schools, etc.
Some of these ideas are worthy but are we missing a big existential part of the problem?
In a recent Kaiser Health News article asking “How Many Opioid Overdoses are Suicides?”, reporter Martha Bebinger relates a heartbreaking interview with a young drug addict:
“She wanted to be dead, she said, glancing down, a wisp of straight brown hair slipping from behind an ear across her thin face.
At that point, said Ohlman, she’d been addicted to opioids — controlled by the drugs — for more than three years.
“And doing all these things you don’t want to do that are horrible — you know, selling my body, stealing from my mom, sleeping in my car,” Ohlman said. “How could I not be suicidal?… “You realize getting clean would be a lot of work,” Ohlman said, her voice rising. “And you realize dying would be a lot less painful. You also feel like you’ll be doing everyone else a favor if you die.”” (Emphasis added)
Having had a daughter with drug addiction and relapses for 16 years who finally succumbed to suicide in 2009 using a horrific assisted suicide technique, I recognize the same pain this young woman expresses. I also know the frustration and fears of families and friends desperate to help.
The Kaiser article goes on to quote Dr. Maria Oquendo, immediate past president of the American Psychiatric Association, who said that “[Based on the literature that’s available], it looks like it’s anywhere between 25 and 45 percent of deaths by overdose that may be actual suicides,” *(Emphasis added).
The article also quotes a pair of distinguished economists who say that “opioid overdoses, suicides and diseases related to alcoholism are all often ‘deaths of despair’” caused by “underlying deep malaise”. (Emphasis added)
We have both a suicide and a drug crisis that often overlap due to an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and helplessness.
EXAMINING THE SCOPE OF THE PROBLEM
As psychiatrist Dr. Oquendo notes in a related article, US suicide rates were declining until they “abruptly stopped in1999” and now have increased 25%, especially among adolescent girls.
Now, there are about 123 reported suicides per day in the US but the real figure may be as high as 3 to 5 times that number because many suicides go unreported as suicide because of reasons like the stigma of suicide and the difficulty in determining intent.
Additionally, nearly half of US adults have a close friend or family member with a current or past drug addiction.
We have more drug treatment centers and suicide prevention programs than ever (with unfortunately varying levels of quality and allowed family involvement) but the problems continue to persist and even worsen.
What has happened in the US since suicide rates started rising two decades ago and drug abuse has surged?
First, we must recognize that American culture, law and politics changed radically in the last two decades and this has drastically affected all of us, especially our young people. For example, the legalization and glamorization of assisted suicide and mind altering drugs like recreational marijuana have not helped anyone want to embrace personal responsibility and caring for others as worthy goals.
We also now have a culture where religious values are often derided as judgmental and even harmful to social progress. Obscene language and violent, hypersexualized entertainment is applauded as liberating rather than offensive. Having children is portrayed as more of a potential economic, professional and personal burden rather than a joyful manifestation of love, commitment and family.
We owe our society and especially our young people a more hopeful, less selfish view of life rather than just the pursuit of money, fame and pleasure.
Without a strong foundation of love, strong ethics and ideals, the resilience required to weather both the ups and downs of life without drugs or succumbing to suicide can be lost.
As much as we need good, affordable suicide and drug treatment programs, we adults also need to be examples of a truly “good life” and step up to fight the dangerous influences that are killing our young people.
And we must never give up!