June 3, 2023

The silent pandemic: America’s drug crisis

By Karolina Piwarska

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the public outcry was quick and worldwide. As the surging case numbers hit closer to home, everyone’s attention was drawn to this mysterious disease. Newspapers’ headlines were reserved for COVID-19, while news broadcasts pushed rising death tolls.

Yet, there is another pandemic that rarely receives the publicity and help it needs. This silent pandemic lurks in the streets of every town and every city and it does not discriminate. It affects students, parents, teachers, friends, the rich and the poor. However, the stigma that those in the grips of this disease face keep it from public discussion.

There were a reported 100,306 deaths linked to drug overdoses in the United States between April 2020 and ‘21. This was a 28.5% increase from the prior year, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Center for Health Statistics. During the same time, COVID-19’s death toll was 574,117 when the cases were at their highest. While these numbers seem to vary greatly from each other, it is important to understand that drug-related deaths are close to a quarter the number of COVID-19 deaths, with numbers rising steadily. It has become necessary to call attention to this issue in order to educate, help and save the ones we can.

Societal views on addiction are detrimental to helping those with addiction. Many would rather hide the fact that they have an addiction than seek help, fearing others’ opinions. Despite the National Institute on Drug Abuse classifying drug addiction as a disease, some still consider drug addiction a choice and something that could easily be stopped.

“From a health psychology standpoint, using any psychoactive substances (anything from caffeine to opiates) is often a coping mechanism—a way to deal with stressors, difficult events in a person’s life,” says NCC professor of psychology, Gina Turner, who holds a Ph.D. in psychology. “These stressors can be anything from regularly not getting enough sleep to dealing with the consequences of poverty, abuse, discrimination and of course many other personal and social challenges. This includes using these substances to self-medicate for psychological symptoms like anxiety and depression.”

As Turner mentions, addiction can be rooted from many sources, ranging from biological, psychological or social. This leads to another misconception that addiction mainly affects the older population. However, a growing number of teenagers and young adults can be seen attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Many have different stories of how they ended up in that position and many taking the form of classmates, coworkers or family members.

“Kids are getting addicted younger and having worse consequences sooner, which brings them into the rooms of NA searching for a way out,” says an NCC student who has been in recovery for four years and wishes to remain anonymous. She explains that her addiction stemmed from the need for mind and mood-altering substances. Just like many others, her addiction began with alcohol.

“It slowly escalated out of control, and I was never content. … I felt that I had to get more. It felt like I had no choice,” the NCC student says. “I knew I was doing wrong. I didn’t want to do the things that I was doing, but it felt as if I would die if I didn’t do whatever it took to keep using. I say all this to say that it was never a choice for me. It was a need.”
Professional addiction counselors and people with addiction agree that the first time is a choice but then the disease changes how the brain works.

“Something is triggered in me that sparks an insatiable obsession and compulsion to keep using,” the NCC student says.
When it is no longer a choice, how can someone with addiction be judged rather than provided with help?

With the negative view that many people have towards addiction, it is difficult for those with addiction to not only look for help but to celebrate their accomplishments. The rooms of NA are filled with people who have overcome immense struggles. Those who downplay addiction’s power may not recognize the strength it takes to find a solution. Downplaying addiction stigmatizes those affected, promotes an inability to change and keeps them from pursuing recovery.

Although there are many options available to those with drug addiction who want to get help, an important way to support and encourage them is to look at addiction in a different light.

“My mother once shared with me that although she is incredibly proud of me for getting clean, sometimes she is still hesitant to tell her peers about my struggles out of fear of judgement,” the NCC student says. “I think to completely rid society of the negative stigma, people need to become more open-minded to the science. I was not a bad person—I was a sick one.”

By showing compassion to people with addiction rather than discrimination, we can bring awareness to this issue and look for better ways of treating those that are affected.

Infographic by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Next month issue, The Commuter will examine how social life and media can normalize drugs and alcohol.

For more information on addiction and recovery, visit:
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration or call the National Drug Hotline 1-844-289-0879

Contact The Commuter: thecommuter@nullnorthampton.edu

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