In July, the CDC released provisional overdose estimates for 2020 suggesting that over 93,000 people died from drug overdoses last year, with almost 70,000 of those deaths caused by opioids. This is more than 20,000 deaths (almost a 30 percent increase) above 2019 levels and the largest single-year increase since 1999.
It appears that overdose deaths rose dramatically across nearly every racial/ethnic group and age range. In addition, no region or community across the U.S. was spared. Preliminary projections also show an increase in overdose deaths in Canada, where the opioid overdose crisis continues to have significant impacts on Canadian families and communities.
Reasons Behind the Increase
One reason for the catastrophic rise in opioid overdose deaths is the increased use of powerful synthetic opioids such as fentanyl within the drug supply. In 2015, synthetic opioids were involved in 18 percent of overdose deaths in the U.S.; in 2020, it appears to be more than 60 percent. Fentanyl is now showing up in combination with drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine.
The conditions created by the COVID-19 pandemic were another factor behind the spike in overdose deaths. Decreased and disrupted access to traditional substance abuse treatment – including medications, counseling and in-person group meetings – as well as social isolation, financial stress and the general trauma of the past year all contributed to this crisis.
This September marks the 32nd year of National Recovery Month. Given how many people have been impacted by substance use disorders (SUDs), either their own or someone else’s, this year’s theme, “Recovery is for everyone: every person, every family, every community” is especially meaningful. Although every recovery journey is different, no one should be alone on that journey. Continuing to educate people about substance use disorders and the effectiveness of treatment and recovery services helps make recovery possible.
One of the main barriers to treatment is that so many people continue to deny or ignore that a substance use disorder is a legitimate disease and that someone with a SUD is just as deserving of assistance as a person with any other illness. Twenty-three million Americans are currently addicted to alcohol or other drugs. Yet only one in 10 receives the treatment they need. The result is a treatment gap of more than 20 million Americans. Can you imagine if only 10 percent of people diagnosed with cancer received treatment? What if a friend or loved one was diagnosed with cancer and didn’t get treatment? That would likely be viewed as unacceptable, yet many people with substance use disorders go untreated.
Harm Reduction and Seeking Treatment
There are many treatments and lifesaving measures available to help people struggling with SUDs. Many of them fall under the concept of harm reduction: policies, programs and practices that aim to minimize negative health, social and legal impacts associated with drug use, drug policies and drug laws. Evidence shows harm reduction saves lives, improves health and strengthens families and communities.
Three of the many goals of harm reduction include:
- Drug-related illness and injury prevention
- Overdose death prevention
- Effective, evidence-based drug treatment for problematic use
- Naloxone. Also known as Narcan®, naloxone is a medication used to counter the effects of opioid overdose. Naloxone can be incorporated into a workplace health and safety program through inclusion in first-aid supplies and by training workers to recognize the signs of an overdose and administer naloxone.
- Medication-assisted treatment. MAT combines medications with counseling and behavioral therapy to help patients overcome substance abuse disorders. Research shows this approach can successfully treat SUDs and help people sustain recovery. A common misconception is that MAT is “swapping one addiction for another.” MAT is not a cure but is one part of a comprehensive treatment plan. Just as someone with diabetes may take insulin to help manage their diabetes, MAT may help someone manage their substance use disorder.
- Harm reduction centers. Also called supervised consumption services or supervised injection facilities, HRCs provide a clean and safe space for people who use drugs to consume pre-obtained drugs under the supervision of trained staff. Staff can provide sterile injection supplies, answer questions on safe injection practices, administer first aid if needed and monitor for overdose. They can also offer general medical advice and referrals to drug treatment, medical treatment and other social support programs. Studies show HRCs and the services they provide can help prevent fatal drug overdoses, curb the spread of infectious diseases and provide a connection to substance abuse treatment. Although there are more than 120 HRCs globally, putting them in place in the U.S. has been difficult due to legal and ideological obstacles. Recently, however, Rhode Island became the first state to pass a bill authorizing HRCs as part of a two-year pilot program.
Substance use disorders and the treatments associated with them can evoke strong emotional responses in people. However, any measures we can take to save lives impacted by SUDs are critical. What if the person struggling was your mother, brother, daughter or son? Everyone is someone’s relative. And just as you would do anything you could to save your own relative, why deny someone else’s relative the chance to recover?
For more information on recovery resources and other mental health services in your area, call your LIUNA health and welfare fund. You can also call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP. This free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service helps individuals and families facing mental and substance use disorders.
[Jamie Becker is the LHSFNA’s Director of Health Promotion.]