I love superheroes. Captain America. Superman. Wonder Woman. The bravery and strength--not the costumes--call to me. They always have.
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It is easy to get lost in the dizzying data of our nation’s overdose epidemic: 63,600 drug overdose deaths in 2016, a number larger than the entire population of Terre Haute, Indiana.
We are losing the equivalent of a plane crash every day in America. If those planes were actually going down every day the FAA would stop operations until they found out exactly what was going on, yet we are still slow and struggling to take a response to scale to address the opioid crisis nationally.
The numbers don’t adequately convey the heartache and loss that accompanies the disease of addiction either. This loss includes Aimee Manzoni-Darpino from Massachusetts getting to beam with pride at her beloved son Emmett’s college graduation. Emmett would have been graduating this month, had his life not been tragically cut short following a string of seven prior non-fatal opioid overdoses. It includes Doug Griffin from New Hampshire one day walking his beautiful daughter Courtney down the aisle. Courtney passed away due to a fentanyl overdose after insurance coverage was repeatedly denied for the substance use disorder treatment she so desperately needed.
These tragedies can be prevented. We know who our most at-risk patients are: those who have already had a non-fatal overdose are at heightened risk for a fatal overdose. In fact, an estimated 70 percent of people who die of an overdose had previously experienced a non-fatal overdose. Our Emergency Departments (ED) are on the frontline of this public health emergency. Between 2005 and 2014, the national rate of opioid-related ED visits increased 99.4 percent, then increased another 29.7 percent from July 2016 to September 2017. Recognizing the critical need for ED interventions for patients suffering with substance use disorders, the Addiction Policy Forum launched its Emergency Medicine Initiative—which includes a toolkit and other resources-- to support health systems and patients.
As we move as a society from viewing addiction as a moral failing to treating it as the health condition science has proven it to be, we must address it in our healthcare system with the thoughtful urgency this epidemic requires and support our medical providers with the necessary infrastructures and protocols to do so. We are fortunate to have important tools in our toolbox: screenings, medications to treat addiction, naloxone to reverse overdoses and training resources. By layering these and other innovative interventions, we can transform a trip to the ED into an opportunity for linkage to treatment and recovery.
The toll of not supporting our nation’s health systems to address our most vulnerable patients’ needs is a price we cannot afford: we are losing 174 sons, daughters, sisters, and brothers each day to drug overdose, a generation of Americans lost to a treatable disease. By changing how we respond to non-fatal overdoses, we can have the biggest, quickest impact and save the most lives.
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I am hopeful that the President’s declaration will put resources toward properly addressing this crisis and transforming the field of addiction as a whole. A comprehensive response will take time and entail major policy reforms on both the federal and local level, but there are also steps that each of us can take to help halt this epidemic to which we currently lose 144 people every day. We can talk to our kids about delaying social drinking until their brains have developed, we can decrease stigma by educating our communities about the science behind substance use disorders, we can make sure our schools are implementing evidence-based prevention programs, we can help loved ones who are struggling to access quality treatment. These vital steps can only happen on a local, personal level and they require education, investment, rigor and patience. Another important step that each one of us can take to help prevent substance misuse in our homes and communities is to clean out our medicine cabinets.
Heroin is involved in many of the opioid-related deaths, but addiction doesn’t always begin with the use of illicit drugs. Studies have shown that two in three people who currently use heroin started out by using prescription pain medications for nonmedical purposes. According to the federal government, 2,000 teenagers will misuse a prescription drug for the first time today, and tomorrow, and the day after that. Many of these first-time encounters with opioids happen in homes with leftover medications that were initially prescribed by a physician.
The Journal of the American Medical Association reported that two-thirds of surgical patients end up with unused pain medications, such as oxycodone and morphine, after recovering from a procedure. Because most of us aren’t educated about the risks of keeping unused medication in our homes, these prescribed drugs are often neither secured nor disposed of properly, but stashed in medicine cabinets and bedside table drawers. Decreasing access to these medications is one key step in curtailing the opioid crisis.
On Thursday, November 2nd, The Addiction Policy Forum partnered with a number of local organizations in Ohio, a state particularly hard-hit by the opioid epidemic, to distribute free prescription drug disposal kits containing at-home disposal pouches and educational materials. These disposal pouches are easy to use and highly effective—put any unused medication into the pouch, add water (which mixes with chemical properties in the pouch to nullify active ingredients in the medicine) and toss the pouch into the trash.
We launched this effort on the weekend of daylight savings in hopes that one day soon, prescription drug disposal will become a biannual ritual—a habit as common sense as turning your clocks back, flipping your mattress, or replacing the batteries in your smoke alarm. Each autumn, when we all “fall back,” do your part to keep prescription drugs from falling into the wrong hands by properly disposing of your unused medications.
Order a prescription drug disposal kit today by visiting www.addictionPolicy.org/order.
Editor's note: Jessica Hulsey Nickel spoke at a recent addiction forum at Circleville High School hosted by the Pickaway Addiction Action Coalition. With over 25 years in the addiction field, she has worked in the areas of prevention, treatment, criminal justice reform and on Capitol Hill.