The opioid epidemic affects all of us

Published 8:34 am Monday, July 17, 2017

There’s hardly a day goes by that America’s opioid addiction crisis is not in the news. And, it’s not just in Washington, D.C., Chicago, New York City, or even Nashville. Tennessee has the second-highest rate of opioid addiction in the nation.
The Northeast Tennessee region has experienced devastating consequences as a result of the opioid epidemic. Too many of our citizens’ lives have been turned upside down as a result of opioid abuse, and far too many have lost their lives from an overdose.
In addition, opioid addiction presents a tremendous financial burden for our region, resulting in increased costs to each of our counties’ policing, health care, rehabilitation, housing and criminal justice system. Many of the cases that go through Carter County Sessions Court involve drugs and related shoplifting and theft incidents.
Tennessee Department of Health data show 1,451 people died from drug overdoses in the state in 2015. This is the highest annual number of overdose deaths recorded in state history and brings the five-year total for Tennessee to 6,036 lives lost. That figure is approximately the equivalent of every person on 40 mid-size jet liners dying.
In 2015, the overdose death rate was 22 per 100,000 people. This compares with a rate of 14.7 per 100,000 people who died in motor vehicle accidents, as 970 Tennesseans died last year on the state’s roadways.
Abuse and misuse of opioids continues to be a significant factor in Tennessee’s crisis of drug overdose deaths. TDH data show nearly 72 percent of the 1,451 drug overdose deaths in Tennessee in 2015 involved opioids. Among the overdose deaths involving opioids, the vast majority were unintentional. Approximately 30 percent of opioid-related drug overdose deaths were confirmed to have included a combination of opioid and benzodiazepine medications, a particularly deadly combination. Deaths to which fentanyl was confirmed to have contributed rose significantly from 69 deaths in 2014 to 174 in 2015. Heroin-associated overdose deaths increased from 147 in 2014 to 205 in 2015.
The truth is Tennesseans are addicted and dying from drug overdoses.
There’s a lot of talk about who is to blame for the epidemic of opioid abusers and opioid deaths.
There’s a bigger need to ask how our culture enabled this crisis.
We can point our fingers at pharmaceutical companies and doctors. True, pharmaceutical companies made a lot of money selling opioid painkillers, and some say they did so without regard to the dangers.
And, too many doctors failed to look closely at the drugs they were prescribing. Before the spotlight was turned on this problem, it was not uncommon to hear stories of people returning home after surgery with enough oxycodone to chemically enslave or kill them.
Doctors were the gateway for these drugs, and doctors need to ask themselves if they exercised due diligence before handing out popular prescriptions.
That said, doctors respond to the needs of people with chronic pain — and the tricks of people who doctor-shop for pills to maintain their addiction.
It’s hard to blame someone who became addicted to the opioids a doctor prescribed after surgery.
But continued use becomes opioid abuse, and that is a choice.
We aren’t supposed to say things like that these days. People cling to their victimhood. There’s a derogatory label for expecting people to take personal responsibility for what happens to them. Doing so is derided as “shaming.”
But the lack of a strong sense of self-determination and personal responsibility drove this crisis. That’s true of the drug company executives, the doctors, the patients and the addicts.
At every level, there was a failure to take a hard look at the consequences of the decisions being made.
The opioid abuse and overdose epidemic is more than a medical or public-health crisis. It is a symptom of a society that is failing its members.
It is a crisis in which people are apparently so disconnected from a meaningful life that they give themselves to addictive drugs.
We can and should treat the symptoms of this opioid-abuse epidemic.
We also need to do some soul-searching about the causes.
It is an epidemic that is destroying families, communities, unborn babies, and innocent children. We, as a society, have a responsibility to look within and then say, “what can I do to help?”

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