100,000 Americans Died of Overdoses This Year. I Was Once Almost One of Them | Opinion

Overdose deaths in America have reached record highs. The National Center for Health Statistics reported a staggering 100,000 overdose deaths between April 2020 and April 2021. It was a 30 percent increase from the 78,000 deaths in the prior year.

In addition to the infiltration of fentanyl into the drug market, which is far more deadly than heroin, many are also blaming the COVID-19 pandemic for the rise, which experts told the New York Times "signals a public health crisis whose magnitude was both obscured by the Covid pandemic and accelerated by it." Per these experts, the pandemic led to the "postponement of treatment for substance abuse disorders, as health care providers nationwide struggled to tend to huge numbers of coronavirus patients and postponed other services."

But blaming COVID is too simplistic. The accelerating opioid epidemic is a complex problem, and one we need to accurately diagnose in order to address.

This is personal for me: In 2012, I had a 10 percent chance of survival due to a decades-long addiction to opioids. I had multiple failed attempts to get sober under my belt at the time. I had lost my job, my friends, and my family, and was no longer allowed to see my son. That was my rock bottom. I ended up in the hospital with congestive heart failure, and fortunately, my mom had seven years sober at that time and forced me to get clean. She put me in a sober living home that cost $500 a month. Through the support of the guys in that house as well as 12-step programs, I was able to build a foundation for my sobriety.

I got clean on my 27th birthday. But I know firsthand how complicated addiction is—and how easy and dangerous it is to find a convenient scapegoat that does nothing to curb the crisis.

opioid overdoses
BINGHAMTON, NEW YORK - AUGUST 21: Esther Nesbitt, who has lost two of her children to drug overdoses, grieves for her daughter on August 21, 2021 in Binghamton, New York. The organization Truth Pharm gathered family members of people who have died from opioid addiction together to call for drug reform policies and the prosecution of the Sackler family which manufactured and marketed Oxycontin. Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

It's true that treatment centers have had to adjust due to the pandemic. I saw this first-hand visiting my mom who is the clinical director of a rehab. Her program like many others had to start doing Zoom sessions with clients.

But the truth is, treatment has always been a luxury for people trying to get clean. It should be no surprise that most drug addicts can't afford to pay out-of-pocket for medications that curb addiction, and treatment is even more expensive. Detox programs at alcohol rehab facilities can cost anywhere from $250 to $800 per day, and detox is just the first step of getting addicts medically stable. Doctors and addiction specialists recommend that long-term inpatient treatment before transitioning to outpatient, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Even with medical insurance, many can't afford the treatment they need due to high deductibles.

Moreover, blaming the pandemic erases the fact that the opioid crisis has long preceded it. The stark reality is that in the year prior to the pandemic, there were over 70,000 deaths from drug overdoses. If we blame this all on COVID, we're going to continue to lose countless lives.

The truth of the matter is, like so many of America's other problems, the pandemic revealed and exacerbated ongoing, decades-long crises. And the opioid crisis is related to those other crises, too.

The root of the problem is that people are struggling, and they are dying what economist Anne Case and Nobel Prize winner Angus Deaton call "deaths of despair." Based on a wealth of data, Case and Deaton have argued that our capitalist system that has led to massive wealth inequality and a feeling of deep despair among Americans without a college degree, fueling the epidemic of overdose deaths as well as a huge spike in suicides.

And until we address that core issue—the despair of downwardly mobile Americans—we are going to continue to see these overdoses and suicides.

That is, of course, a big ask. We're not going to solve the alienations of a free market capitalist system overnight. But in the meantime, there are smaller steps that can be taken to protect Americans vulnerable to the opioid epidemic.

One way we can start to tackle this problem is with the decriminalization and legalization of drugs, which would go a long way to preventing deaths from fentanyl-laced street drugs. With legalization comes regulation and drug testing. Our over-reaching drug laws are also hindering research in the use of non-addictive psychedelics like psilocybin for treating depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other mental health issues affecting millions of Americans. These drugs could provide an alternative to mentally ill Americans seeking oblivion in heroin.

Moreover, ending prescription drug price-gouging is another easy way to address the problem. Medication-Assisted Treatment for substance abuse disorders has saved countless lives, including my own. Suboxone is a life-saving opioid agonist that decreases cravings and prevents a person from getting high. This medication is meant to be taken daily, but the average price for one pill ranges from $24.50 to $145. Sadly, though lowering prescription drugs was something Democrats have long promised to do, healthcare provisions were removed from the infrastructure bill due to pressure from centrists in the party.

At the end of the day, the opioid and fentanyl problem is far more complex than challenges resulting from COVID-19, and once we've correctly diagnosed the source of the problem, it will become clear that there are actions that we can all take today to solve it.

In addition to drug pricing and legalization, compassion and decreasing the stigma around addiction are desperately in order. I can tell you from the experience of my own addiction and from working with thousands of addicts that these people are hurting. Something as simple as being kind to someone may prevent them from self-medicating with drugs to cope with the struggles of everyday life, and we don't need politicians to make that happen.

Chris Boutté is the host of The Rewired Soul podcast and author of HOPE and Caught in the Crossfire. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @TheRewiredSoul.

The views in this article are the writer's own.