A staggering 87,000 people died of a drug overdose in America in the 12 months ending September 2020. I’m a veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces. I’ve seen other veterans become part of this statistic, and it doesn’t have to be this way.
We can save thousands of lives when we recognize two things: First, drugs are not the problem. Human suffering is. Second, most people who are dying of an overdose today have taken unregulated, contaminated drugs that were bought on the street.
The day-to-day suffering in people’s lives is not an easy thing to fix. I joined the military right out of high school. Through my years in the service, I became a listening ear often to others who wanted to share their lives and talk through problems. I saw people struggling with PTSD and others develop substance use disorders. Approaching my last enlistment with 17 years of service, I went back to school for formal training because I wanted to be a supporter. Today, I am practicing as a licensed professional counselor and clinical director working with clients who are struggling with mental health diagnoses and substance use disorders.
My professional training confirmed my personal experience. My colleagues who were struggling weren’t bad people, they were hurting people. Drug use isn’t the problem, it’s a solution attempt. Trauma, relationships and finances are some of the most frequent problems that people are trying to solve with drugs. This is why the criminal justice system doesn’t work well to stop people’s drug use. It adds more trauma, broken relationships and financial hardship to a person’s life.
Instead of increasing suffering through criminal justice involvement, what can we do to help people heal? We can invite them to treatment with a non-judgmental approach. We can pave the way for them to gain the appropriate rehabilitation through available funding. We can cheer for them even when everyone else in their corner has stopped. This is really hard, especially when someone’s drug use has caused so much pain to them and their family.
But if we want better outcomes, we have to stop throwing gasoline on the fire. New trauma doesn’t heal old trauma. Instead, we can take steps to help people find hope, healing and connection when they’re open to it.
The problem of a contaminated street drug supply is also challenging. As prescription pills have become harder and harder to get, more and more people are buying drugs from the underground market. Buyers don’t know how potent the drugs are because there’s no regulation or quality control. This is unfortunate as the consumed amount to get high can end up killing them instead.
For people with an opioid misuse disorder, medication assisted treatment can help. This form of treatment involves the use of medications being prescribed under the care of a physician in combination with counseling and behavioral therapies to assist individuals in their recovery process. It not only helps people stop using contaminated street drugs, it’s the most effective form of opioid addiction treatment for many people.
Drug use and overdose are complex problems, but there are better solutions. We can save the lives of more veterans as well as our friends and family members. If we want to decrease drug use, we must focus less on the drugs and more on the pain people are trying to solve with each use. If we want to decrease overdose deaths, we must expand access to medications that can help stop the use of contaminated drugs and get help for the addiction at the same time.