By Mark O’Brien, RALI Policy Director
We all want safe, healthy communities where our families and neighbors can thrive. But America is facing an unprecedented crisis of opioid addiction and overdose death. In 2018, 2 million Americans had an opioid use disorder, and more than 67,000 Americans died from drug and alcohol overdose. At the same time as we are losing so many to the opioid crisis, we are also confronting a heartbreaking increase in suicide. Over 48,000 Americans died from suicide in 2018, and the rate has increased by 35% since 1999. Every one of these preventable deaths represents somebody’s daughter or son, brother or sister, mother, father, or friend, an empty seat at someone’s dinner table.
These deadly and overlapping crises are not unrelated. Labelled “deaths of despair,” overdose deaths and suicides contributed to the first sustained decreases in American life expectancy in over forty years. As many as 30% of overdose deaths may actually be suicides.
We must do more to ensure access to addiction and mental health prevention, treatment, and recovery support. Yet, while the numbers of families affected by these twin crises continue to skyrocket, the pervasive stigma attached to addiction, mental health disorders, and suicide keep us from talking about it. The shame people feel when they or their family are struggling with these issues prevents people from seeking the help that could make a difference.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. There are promising signs that we may be turning a corner. Over 23 million Americans are in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. And while deaths from synthetic opioids like illicit fentanyl continue to rise, 2018 saw a decrease in overall overdose deaths in the U.S. for the first time in two decades.
It’s still too soon to start congratulating ourselves. We are losing too many of our loved ones to get complacent. This is a time for great hope and a renewed commitment to work together to end this crisis. There is a role for every sector of society in responding to substance use and mental health disorders. From public health and first responders to education, healthcare, faith-based organizations, employers, advocates and policymakers, we all have a role to play.
The Rx Abuse Leadership Initiative (RALI) is doing its part. RALI brings together diverse perspectives to work together and prevent prescription opioid misuse. Partner organizations all over the country support programs that educate, provide tools and resources, and, ultimately, seek to help save lives. RALI has launched educational programs like the RALI CARES trailer, offered in partnership with Code 3, to teach parents and other concerned adults about the signs of youth substance use. We have hosted community conversations to raise awareness across the country and distributed prescription drug disposal kits to prevent unused medications from contributing to addiction.
There are so many simple ways to get involved that can have a big impact on your community. We all can help put an end to this crisis.