BY JESSICA NAGRO: Earlier this month, the world lost a talented and beloved actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman, to a heroin overdose. While the death of a popular celebrity makes headlines, there are countless more who lose their struggle with addiction each and every day and the magnitude of these losses often go unnoticed by much of society. However, we have reached a point where we can no longer turn a blind eye to this increasingly pressing issue. Our country is on the verge of a full-blown heroin crisis. States in upper New England are already feeling the impact of this growing problem, and it is only a matter of time before the rest of the country feels the enormity of this public health emergency.
According to a recent article in Bloomberg News, deaths from unintended drug overdoses have increased fivefold in the last two decades, with heroin and prescription opioid use at the forefront of this disturbing trend. In fact, between 2002 and 2012, heroin use increased by 66% in the US and the rate of addiction has more than doubled. While the causes of this dramatic increase are unclear, it seems that heroin has become a very dangerous substitute for individuals who are already addicted to prescription opiates like oxycontin and codeine.
There is no place that has felt the pain of this crisis more than upper New England. To put it in perspective, since 2000, Vermont has seen a 770% increase in treatment of opiate addictions. Heroin killed three times as many people in Maine last year as it did in 2011 and New Hampshire experienced a more than 470% increase in deaths from heroin overdoses over the last decade. While the problem seems more pressing in upper New England, these are issues that impact communities across the country.
To emphasize the seriousness of this crisis, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin took an unprecedented step and dedicated the entirety of his January 2014 State of the State Address to what he referred to as our “full-blown heroin crisis.” In his address he stated, “The time has come for us to stop quietly averting our eyes from the growing heroin addiction in our front yards, while we fear and fight treatment facilities in our backyards.”
To combat the problem, the governor called for devoting more resources to treatment programs. He argued that it costs the state far less to send someone to a state-financed treatment center ($123 per week) than to incarcerate that individual for the same period of time ($1,120 per week). He also made a plea for expanded rapid intervention programs and the implementation of tougher laws to discourage high-volume dealers from entering the state.
As Governor Shumlin indicated in his address, this is a problem that needs to be tackled from various entry-points. As a nation we have, up until this point, failed to address our growing addiction crisis as a public health issue and this needs to change. We need to increase prevention and education campaigns, especially those geared to high-risk populations. There is also promising data out on the use of Naloxone, a drug meant to reverse the symptoms of an overdose when administered quickly enough. At the very core, we need to work on reducing the stigma of drug addiction to encourage those who need help to seek it out.
After Hoffman’s death, Aaron Sorkin, a close friend of the actor, recounted a time Hoffman said to him, “’If one of us dies of an overdose, probably 10 people who were about to won’t,” hoping news of his death would scare others clean. While I certainly hope his fate is a cautionary tale to those headed down the same path, this cannot be our only strategy to save people from their addictions.
Maybe if the country had more Governor Shumlins, we would lose fewer Philip Seymour Hoffmans.