By Daniel Johnson
Maine, like many other states, continues to struggle with significant addiction problems. Overdose deaths have reached their highest level ever as documented in a recent press release from the Maine attorney general’s office.
According to this report, in the past year, 208 Mainers lost their lives to drug overdoses. The ages of the deceased ranged from 18 to 88, so we cannot say it is just 18-25 year olds. In fact, the average age of victims was 43. These overdoses represent an increase of 18 percent from the previous year.
Of these, 57 were related to heroin or morphine, which are in the class of drugs known as opioids, a dramatic 68 percent increase from those Mainers who died from opioid overdoses in 2013. This problem is getting significantly worse.
The attorney general’s report cites another dangerous opioid that took many lives in 2014, fentanyl. Fentanyl, which is 15-20 times more potent than heroin, killed 43 people last year, either alone or mixed with other drugs, as opposed to nine in 2013. That is a 370 percent increase. Prescription pain medications are also opioids, and these drugs are often abused and result in unintentional overdoses, some fatal.
Other drugs that were implicated in overdose deaths are alcohol, which remains a significant problem representing about one-third of these deaths, benzodiazepines and some antidepressants, typically older tricyclics. Any combination of alcohol, benzodiazepines and opioids is especially dangerous and is responsible for the majority of overdose deaths.
So we have a huge problem not only in Maine but also here in our own community. At Acadia Family Center (AFC), the only licensed substance abuse treatment provider on Mount Desert Island, we are working hard to keep pace with solutions.
I recently met with Jim Willis, chief of Bar Harbor and Mount Desert Police Departments, and I asked him about this issue. Chief Willis said that almost all the law enforcement responses are somehow drug or alcohol related. These include motor vehicles accidents or violations, arrests for illicit drug use, domestic violence incidents, assaults and so on.
While it may sound like we were discussing New York City or Boston, this is here on MDI!
Physician, author and addiction specialist Steven Kassels, who is a strong supporter of our center, said in a recent email to me that the attorney general’s report, coupled with “the well-known data that 90 percent of heroin users are white non-inner city and that white suburban women in their 20s are the fastest growing segment of new heroin users is quite ‘sobering.’” His point is well taken: this is not just an inner city problem. Kassels also pointed out that the cost of this epidemic is a staggering $400 billion to U.S. taxpayers.
What can we do? First of all, we must recognize this is a real and deadly problem and one that we must squarely face. Denial is not a solution.
Secondly, we must continue to educate our youth about the ravages of addiction. Prevention education is a critical tool to help our young people learn about the facts of drug addiction, and our center has been providing this education for many years on MDI and surrounding communities. There is no need for hyperbole; the facts are quite terrifying all on their own.
Thirdly, we need to offer treatment to those with substance use disorders, including those with opioid addiction. AFC recently has begun prescribing a medication, Suboxone, which stabilizes those with opioid dependence so they may begin substance abuse counseling, but the need is greater than our resources.
Finally, we need to reduce the stigma around getting help for those family, friends and neighbors with substance use disorders. I recently read a blog by an outspoken critic of public policies that minimizes this issue. Margaret Farenger said that stigma was a fancy word for prejudice, and I found that a powerful and enlightening statement.
Ultimately, we must come to the understanding that substance use disorders are brain disorders and not some moral failing. We don’t stigmatize our family, friends and neighbors who have cancer, but somehow we still morally judge those with substance use disorders as weak or deserving what they have done to themselves. This erroneous belief lacks scientific evidence as well as compassion for those who have an illness.
The good news is that treatment works. For some, it may take longer than for others, and there may be occasional relapses, but people with substance use disorders can and do recover and move forward to live happy and productive lives. I have seen it happen countless times.
The price of substance abuse is staggering in an economic context. But it is even more costly to families who suffer the burden of watching a loved one in the throes of addiction who is not receiving treatment. Even worse is seeing those families who must bury a family member who succumbed to the ultimate cost. We must do better.