We are playing with fire regarding the raging opioid crisis
We have been playing with fire when it comes to opioid abuse and, if we are not careful, we are going to continue to get burned. The country is in the ruthless grip of an epidemic that has hit rural areas, such as western Ohio, especially hard.
Quite simply, the opioid epidemic is a mass-casualty event. In 2017 alone, 72,000 Americans lost their lives to accidental overdoses, the vast majority of which were opioid overdoses. That exceeds the 58,000 Americans who were killed in the Vietnam War. If all of the victims of opioid abuse died within a short time frame, we would recognize the epidemic for the destructive crisis it truly is — a social problem rather than a “personal problem.”
Worse yet, the damage caused by opioid abuse extends beyond the users’ lives that are often cut too short. In a classic case of death by 1,000 cuts, the epidemic impacts others, such as parents, siblings, children, police officers, paramedics and other health-care professionals. According to a recent estimate, the annual cost of opioid abuse to society (including health care, criminal justice and productivity costs) is approximately $50 billion.
To address the problem, we must first identify it and recognize opioid abuse for what it truly is. While we engage in endless debates of whether or not opioid abuse by individuals is a “moral failing” or a “disease,” we miss the bigger picture.
This type of generalization is not only wrong, but it keeps us from addressing the epidemic in an effective manner. Silence and misperceptions are the opioid crisis’ biggest allies. The pioneering American social scientist C. Wright Mills observed that what we often consider “personal problems” are really products of larger social forces.
We recently completed a paper about prescription opioid abuse in a rural juvenile court sample that has been accepted for publication by the American International Journal of Social Science. Research for the paper involved the juvenile court in Hardin County.
Our research shows that opioid addiction often begins with the misuse of prescription drugs. Compared to other subjects, youth who reported opioid abuse were 2½ times more likely to have symptoms consistent with mood disorder, including depression, and seven times more likely to report symptoms reflecting anxiety disorder.
Therefore, to tackle the opioid crisis, we need to address some of the root causes that are leading youths down the path of abuse and addiction. These include mental illness, family dysfunction and kids falling in with the wrong crowd. There is also a prevailing sense of hopelessness about the future. This includes the sense that the secure lives of one’s parents and grandparents is no longer available
A common theme is suffering and that opioids remove, at least, temporarily, all kinds of pain, whether it be physical, social, psychological or spiritual. Tragically, this temporary reprieve often turns into a life-threatening addiction
In our increasingly transient society, even in rural western Ohio, we are losing the traditional institutions that bring structure to life. The traditional family is deteriorating, people are changing jobs at a higher rate with the decline of industry, and people have strayed from the security of the churches of their grandparents. Young people are growing up with more uncertainty, and the opioid-related deaths appear to be what some scholars call “deaths of despair”.
People, especially youths, want meaning in their lives.
Playing with fire is never a good strategy. If we do not take concrete steps to address the opioid crisis, it will continue to spread like a flame out of control.
Keith Durkin and Tristin Kilgallon are criminal justice faculty members at Ohio Northern University. Wade Melton is with the Hardin County Court of Common Pleas, Juvenile Division.