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A Shadow Epidemic Emerges As Overdose Deaths Reach Record Heights

Addiction has been making the news again this week, for an incredibly tragic reason. In the twelve month period between April of 2020 to April of 2021, just over 100,000 people died of drug overdoses, bringing the number the highest it has ever been. In the previous twelve month period, the number was closer to 78,000, indicating nearly a thirty percent increase.

These findings are still technically provisional, but are based on findings from the National Center for Health Statistics that are not likely to change significantly upon further study. 64 percent of these overdoses involved synthetic opioids, like the super-strong and highly lethal opioid drug fentanyl, which is a hundred times more powerful than morphine and forty times more powerful than heroin. This increase in fentanyl use may have been due in part to the pandemic as well, since more concentrated substances were easier to smuggle given the limitations on international travel.

Meanwhile, heroin overdoses actually decreased as synthetic opioids took its place. But deaths from psychostimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine have increased as well, and a 70 percent majority of overdoses overall were in men between the ages of 25 and 54. 

Non-fatal overdoses, as marked by statistics like increased ER visits and increased use of the overdose reversing drug Narcan, have increased as well. These statistics also do not count drug-related deaths that have occurred from non-overdose causes, like sepsis caused by drug injection,

The stress of the pandemic was something of a perfect storm for fostering addiction, creating an extreme amount of stress and then socially isolating people and cutting them off from their support systems, which drove many recovering addicts to relapse and active addicts to increase their abuse. For some, drugs and alcohol became a “friend” that they could count on when real life social contact was out of the question, a way to numb out and get through day after long, lonely day. 

The pandemic also hampered many outreach and support programs and made it harder for people to access treatment, contributing to sometimes-fatal delays in seeking help. Compulsory social distancing also drove more people to use drugs alone, eliminating the safety net of having a companion around who can call for help if an overdose does occur. 

The lasting mental health consequences of the pandemic’s ongoing trauma do not necessarily bode well for the future. But experts have also pointed out that while the pandemic clearly exacerbated America’s overdose problem, it is indeed only an exacerbation of an already apparent trend towards rising overdose deaths, which have nearly doubled over the past five years. 

This means that overdoses now kill more people yearly than car accidents and gun violence combined, the death toll falling between that of Alzheimer’s disease and that of diabetes. Along with COVID deaths, this years increase was large enough to contribute to the largest decrease in American life expectancy since World War II. 

The steep increase in overdoses was also alarming enough to provoke a statement from Joe Biden, who committed to “strengthening prevention, promoting harm reduction, expanding treatment, and supporting people in recovery, as well as reducing the supply of harmful substances in our communities.”  

“As we continue to make strides to defeat the Covid-19 pandemic, we cannot overlook this epidemic of loss, which has touched families and communities across the country,” he remarked. 

Though the White House’s American Rescue Plan has put $4 billion into substance abuse and mental health services, other experts argue that the government is still not doing enough given the magnitude of the problem. They suggest reforms that would increase access to treatment, including the sometimes-controversial but statistically supported medication assisted treatment, and increase the availability of overdose reversing drugs like Narcan.

If this epidemic continues unchecked, it could have devastating societal consequences, not only on addicts themselves but on the many people their deaths will leave behind, including on young children who have been left parentless by the crisis. Both on an individual and on a social level, we need to do more to stem the tide of these tragedies, and to help struggling addicts long before they end up at a point where they risk contributing to the next grim statistic. 

If you or someone you love is currently struggling with an addiction, know that you are not alone, and that there is hope for recovery. At Reco Intensive, our comprehensive treatment program can address all aspects of addiction, including co-morbid mental health diagnoses and underlying trauma that may be fueling your symptoms. To learn more about our intensive outpatient program and about how you can get yourself or a loved one back on the path towards a brighter future, call (561) 464-6533 today.








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