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Drug Overdoses are Leading Cause of Death for those under 50

U.S. drug epidemic brings alarming death toll and orphaned children

As the first of three successive deadly hurricanes carved their way through the Caribbean and Gulf Coast states, an annual memorial from another kind of deadly hurricane was taking place on August 31—International Overdose Awareness Day. Since drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death among Americans under 50, it is important to call attention to a steadily growing epidemic that often gets overshadowed by more popular trending topics.

While some attention has been paid to the opioid crisis (more than 183,000 died from opioid related deaths between 1999 to 2015), 2016 saw the largest spike of overall drug overdoses in U.S. history with an estimated 59,000 deaths (according to preliminary data compiled by The New York Times).

On top of that, this deadly epidemic is leaving bystanders and children in its destructive wake as a staggering 85,937 children in the U.S. were placed in foster care in 2015 due to parental drug use.

How did we get here?

First, let’s take a look at some factors that led to wider adoption of opioids. To share, opioids are a class of drug used to reduce pain which include fentanyl, heroine, oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, methadone and morphine.

Prior to 1995, opioids were only prescribed in the most extreme cases, such as for people with advanced stages of cancer and for people undergoing major surgery. Then a movement grew, potentially instigated by pharmaceutical industry funded research, which suggested that opioid prescriptions could be safe for people with chronic pain.

Before long opioid prescriptions exploded and public perception of their danger declined. In 2012 alone, more than 250 million opioid prescription were written in the U.S. as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This number is staggering as the World Health Organization reports 13.5 million people regularly take opioids, including the 9.2 million who use heroin.

To put the growing phenomenon into perspective, New Hampshire, which currently leads the nation in opioid related deaths, experienced a 70% increase in emergency room visits in four months (Feb-Jun 2016) and witnessed 64 overdoses within two-weeks. First responders in the area are also pointing to the growing use of carfentanil related overdoses, a horse tranquilizer 100 times stronger than fentanyl, that is spreading across the east coast and slowly making its way across the Mississippi to the west coast.

While opioid usage is on the rise, cocaine is used by approximately 15 million people worldwide while more 35 million people regularly use methamphetamine.

Impacts on children

Viewers of the AMC’s critically-acclaimed series Breaking Bad may be surprised to learn that methamphetamine is sought after by a high percentage of women of child-bearing age due to its ability to enhance energy and control appetite while being readily available and inexpensive. Others point to the origins of meth adoption by low-skilled workers to stay awake and fend off boredom as they take on multiple jobs with long hours filled with tedious and menial tasks.

Of course, the downside is that while many mothers (and fathers) may be using methamphetamine to improve their parenting abilities, the grim reality is that the addictive drug deteriorates the body and transforms the brain, producing paranoia, hallucinations, aggression, violence, self-absorption, impaired thinking, judgment and memory. The result is decreased safety for children, leaving them neglected, malnourished, abused, and traumatized. In fact, researchers and law enforcement reports reveal that the increased use and manufacture of methamphetamine across the U.S. has resulted in a dramatic escalation in the severity of child abuse crimes and abuse-related deaths. Worse, the cycle gets repeated as children of drug abusers are 8 times more likely to be an addict.

On top of that, one of the largest studies of its kind has revealed the vast costs on children who have been exposed to traumatic events, or Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Researchers have found that childhood exposure to neglect, abuse, and/or witnessing abuse has resulted in a shortened lifespan along with increased alcohol and prescription drug addiction, intimate partner violence, increased cancer rates, heart disease, chronic pulmonary disease, depression, suicide, financial distress, poor academic and work performance, and a host of other problems. Click here to a full list of medical journal reports.

One challenge for children placed in foster care due to drug abusing parents is that solutions are state by state, so when family members are impacted across states, the state where the drug abuser and their children (if any) reside takes precedent. Often times, drug abusers are in jail and/or on the streets while children become a ward of the state and are placed in foster care as courts try to help parents seek reunification. Therefore, any family members that live out of the state are unable to provide housing to the children due to lack of any federal regulations that would bridge the individual’s states regulations. In addition, the lack of a unified approach for recovery has led to countless drug rehabilitation centers and therapies that contradict each other, leaving many bewildered about what to do (some say practice tough love and let the addict hit “rock bottom” while others recommend stringent and consistent intervention).

Government response

The current White House administration says it is declaring the drug overdose and opioid crisis a public health emergency and is funneling money into prevention, treatment, first responders, prescription drug monitoring programs, recovery and other care in communities, inpatient settings, and correctional systems. To read more, click here for the WH October 26, 2107 press release.

My take

If I were part of the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, I would point to the perfectly presented research and articulate arguments made by Sue Gerhardt in her book, “Why Love Matters: How affection shapes a baby’s brain.” She addresses our rising rates of depression and disconnection in Western society that overemphasizes goal-orientation and achievement over relationship-building and empathy. As such, when an infant has missed the critical touch and soothing of its mother, it develops challenges in its own self-soothing capabilities which can later lead to depression and addiction issues.

She suggests we invest in early parenting and reduce the “twin stresses of isolation and inexperience that plague people in advanced societies.” I agree. I also stand behind the need for a sea change in our culture—one that can promote connectedness.

The popular mind-body/thought-feeling split perpetuates a disconnect that ultimately feeds addiction. Many addicts take a substance in order to fit in or get a job done when they are feeling overwhelmed and/or disconnected. Of course, the substance takes over and heightens the disconnect. Ultimately, one of the key components to recovery is the ability to connect to one’s feelings and have empathy for those around them. From self-centeredness to other-centeredness, from escapism and avoidance of feelings to the ability to feel one’s feelings and to better self-soothe.

Love and empathy, patience and trust are healing balms to a whacked out nervous system. Until we stop and start giving these critical things to our infants (through consistent time and attention), we will keep dealing with the fallout and disrupted nervous systems everywhere that are desperately seeking these basic needs.

Realizing that a baby’s mother or primary caregiver serves as an external incubator to their nervous system might help change our cultural narrative. The baby’s needs come first. Helping families remember that simple priority might help them delay unneeded disruptions. Somewhere, our society had shifted from a community of families and churches that relied on a “We are in it together” to an “I’m only going to look out for me” attitude. There is no room for childrearing, empathy, community pride, or recovery in such a mentality.

The hurricanes seemed to spark a spirit of togetherness and help. Maybe the same compassionate spirit can be galvanized to overturn the destruction of drug overdose. What are your experiences with drug addiction and your thoughts for solutions?

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