Rising 'deaths of despair' a national crisis

The numbers were discouraging, no doubt about it. After a brief respite in 2018, when state drug overdose deaths slightly declined from the prior year, such deaths in 2019 resumed their seemingly inexorable climb upward, recently released data showed. There were 1,200 overdose deaths in Connecticut last year, an 18% spike over 2018.

Unfortunately, the slight dip in 2018 now appears to have been an anomaly rather than a trend.

More alarming is that it would have certainly been worse if not for the efforts of groups such as the region’s Opioid Action Team, the more careful prescribing of painkillers by doctors, and better efforts by medical facilities to offer immediate treatment to overdose patients who survive.

Addiction is being treated more as the illness that it is and less as a crime. Recovery coaches are available to help addicts through the process. A recovery navigator program, begun in 2018, reaches out to people in the community to break the cycle of addiction before a fatal hit takes another life.

Meanwhile, wider availability of the overdose-reversal drug naloxone has saved hundreds on the brink of death.

Yet the overdose-death numbers are rising.

Some of the reasons are known. Over prescription of powerful opioid painkillers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone has driven many to addiction. Drug companies have been targeted in lawsuits for their reckless marketing and downplaying of the dangers of these drugs. A judge in Oklahoma last August ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay that state $572 million toward the cost of dealing with the epidemic. Purdue Pharma declared bankruptcy in the face of the litigation. Other lawsuits target doctors and pharmacies.

For users, ever larger doses are needed to provide the same dopamine high and the numbing release from reality. When prescriptions can no longer meet the need, addicts turn to street drugs.

On the street the growing prevalence of the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl, added to or displacing heroin, drives up the fatality numbers. In Norwich, for instance, which last year saw 28 overdose deaths — second locally to the 33 in New London — fentanyl was present in 83% of the cases, reported the Norwich Heroin Task Force.

Neither Connecticut nor New London County are outliers. Opioid addiction and the resulting overdose deaths are a national crisis. There were about 47,600 opioid-involved overdose deaths in the United States in 2017, the latest national statistics available from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

More complicated is what is driving so many to embrace the escape provided by these drugs, despite the known dangers. Yes, many are entangled in addiction when they seek pain relief for medical needs, but for many opioid misuse starts with using a medication that wasn’t prescribed for the person — obtained from a friend, stolen from a cabinet or purchased from a dealer.

In Norwich, matching a trend seen nationally, the review of overdose deaths found two-thirds of the victims were male, 97% white. The highest rates of drug overdose deaths involving any opioid (58.3%) and synthetic opioids (42.5%) were in whites aged 25-34, according to the CDC. Researchers have also found a correlation between lower education levels and overdose deaths.

Job displacement caused by the nation moving to a less labor intensive, post-industrial world that requires more education and training for good-paying jobs; the loss of the American expectation that one generation will economically surpass the prior one; and the absence of community ties have all been cited as potential contributing factors to growing despodency.

And it is not just overdose deaths. Deaths of despair — the number of Americans who die from alcohol, drugs, or suicide — increased to an all-time high in 2017, and the increase was especially pronounced among young adults, according a June 13, 2019 report from two public health policy and advocacy organizations.

The report by Trust for America’s Health and the Well Being Trust examined CDC data and found between 2007 and 2017, alcohol-induced deaths increased by 69%, drug-related deaths by 108%, and suicide by 35% in the 18-34 age group.

If such deaths continue to increase at this rate, more than 2 million people could be dying from drug overdoses, suicide and alcohol abuse over the next decade, the report projects.

This is a situation that calls for serious national soul searching. It must be part of the 2020 election debate. Turning away won’t fix it. Something is very wrong.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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