Overdose Rates Break Records

by Teresa Cobleigh

We watched headlines of rising pandemic casualties in 2020-21. Still, those numbers masked the silent killer of overdose-related deaths that came with social isolation, anxiety, depression, and the reduction of a supportive community. While nurses and doctors tended to the aged and vulnerable with COVID, overdoses took younger age groups to new highs. The preliminary statistics from the CDC are in. We now have the facts.

Fact: There were 90,000 overdose deaths in 2020.

What is behind the statistic? 90,000 souls were gone before their time. 90,000 futures we will never know—human beings.

Most of these “accidental poisonings” were from age groups under 55. Two-thirds of them were male, and many clustered in their 20’s and 30’s. 90,000 mothers have lost a son or daughter. 90,000 fathers. 90,000 friends to whisper goodbye. How many sons and daughters were left fatherless? Motherless? I’m only sure of one thing — that it was too many.

The 90,000 casualties in 2020 were just in one year. That’s higher than the 58,220 U.S. military fatalities during the protracted Vietnam War. If ever there was a war on our younger generations, this is it.

This August 31st marks Overdose Awareness Day, an opportunity to educate and remind ourselves of the war we are fighting. Our ignorance is part of the problem, but also our disregard for each other. In 2020, there were 90,000 missed opportunities for a mentor or counselor or relative or coach or friend or a bystander to influence an outcome. Treatment is available, harm reduction measures are accessible, and there are plenty of cautionary tales to learn from. Something is escaping our awareness—something we ought to know but don’t.

Do we know that social isolation is a root cause of drug use? If so, then reach out to a friend, especially if they have been faced with trauma in their lives.  Personal trauma is another root cause of addiction and drug use. Drugs are often used as a means of escape.

Did you know that well over 21 million Americans struggle with some form of substance use? That only one in ten people with substance use issues reach out for treatment? There is no shame in seeking help or support. Addiction is not a moral failing — it is a brain disease. It is also a symptom of societal malaise. We are isolated and disconnected, and we need to be better at helping and supporting others in our community. Our behavior, our attitudes — also part of the problem.

Change is possible. When kids were dying from drunk driving in the 1970s, mothers got MADD and society changed. We learned to fork over the keys and let a designated driver take you home from a party. We learned that “friends don’t let friends drive drunk.” We knew not to mix alcohol with pills; the well-known case of Karen Ann Quinlan reverberated as a cautionary tale — you can end up in a coma and on life support for the rest of your life. Friends looked out for each other and spread the news.

Fact:  Accidental overdoses have outpaced car crashes as a leading cause of death for young people.  

Change starts by looking in the mirror. Just how many friends, sons, and daughters must we lose before we change ourselves? Do we blame the drug, or do we remove the malady that leaves us defenseless against the drug?

Let’s start by owning the problem. Addiction can take any of us. We need to lose the stigma. Overdoses can take a range of casualties — from those in the throes of addiction, those in early recovery who have lost their resistance, and also the casual party-goer caught unaware. It can take a victim after time in the dentist’s chair or recovery from surgery. This is not a shame fest. This problem reflects all of us.

Persons at greatest risk are those with lost tolerance — fresh out of rehab or in the early weeks of being released from incarceration. How do we support them when they are fresh out? Herren Project’s recovery scholarships can make a massive difference at a time when those in recovery are most vulnerable.

Fentanyl varies in strength and is mixed with other substances from pills to heroin to cocaine. Think of it as the bullet in a revolver, and by using, you are playing Russian Roulette. The war has changed, and the stakes have been raised. Sound the alarm!

Fact: Cocaine overdose deaths more than doubled after COVID. In some regions, deaths from cocaine are double those of heroin, largely due to fentanyl being in the mix.  

Do you know that fentanyl is showing up in cocaine? Test strips in party spots from NYC to Western PA have shown evidence of fentanyl. Given the supplies in the market, you can assume that any street drug can contain fentanyl. Did you know there is such a thing as fentanyl strips? Think of that and how much you can trust your dealer and your dealer’s dealer next time your face is in the mirror.

Fact: 90 percent of ODs are from poly substances. Do we know that mixing benzos with opioids or alcohol is potentially lethal? If 70 percent of overdoses are fentanyl-related, that leaves 30 percent — plenty of other substances to blame. 

For overdose awareness day, we need to have those conversations. Each of us can play a potentially life-changing role in our communities. Anyone who uses drugs or knows someone who uses them can take a harm reduction approach. Carry at least two doses of the overdose reversal drug naloxone; know the signs and symptoms of an opioid overdose: blue lips (ashy white lips on a person of color) and blue fingernails; struggling/no breathing; being unresponsive to external stimuli; spread the word never to use alone. All states now have Good Samaritan laws, so don’t hesitate to call that 9-1-1, administer Narcan and give CPR.

An increasing number of harm reduction measures are available for those with opioid addiction. Naltrexone, aka Vivitrol, can prevent an overdose. Naloxone, aka Narcan, can save a life. Buprenorphine with Naloxone, aka Suboxone, is readily available as a harm reduction alternative, as is increasingly the extended-release buprenorphine to manage symptoms over time. Buprenorphine and methadone, two medications that treat opioid use disorder, can cut the risk of a fatal opioid overdose in half and support long-term recovery. All choices should be discussed with medical professionals and weighed against risks.

But most of all, know that we are in this fight together and that the only way to win is to build our resistance, support one another, and gear up for the next battle in a protracted war.