Decades of media influence, political posturing and cultural sharpening have firmly entrenched images of the stereotypical drug addict into the American consciousness. We think of the homeless person, visibly withdrawing and panhandling to fund their next fix; the strung out and desperate teenager or young adult from an urban area that we avoid on the street for fear of our safety and personal possessions; the emaciated and nervous twenty-something with track marks on their arms; etc. The reality is that the prescription drug addiction epidemic, along with other factors, has changed the face of addiction in the United States, and has rendered every area of the national landscape vulnerable to this enduring public health crisis.
Fatal drug overdoses reached over 63,000 in 2016. Overdose is now one of the leading causes of preventable death and kills more people per year than automobile accidents. To make matters even more urgent, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that drug-related deaths have spiked over 30 percent from July 2016 to September 2017. The point is that drug addiction is a problem that affects all of us. If it doesn’t directly impact us or our loved ones; it makes that we live in less safe, places a considerable strain on financial resources and destroys families and relationships.
Drug addiction can affect anyone, including our parents, our grandparents, our significant others, our children and our friends. It’s past time to stop letting ingrained feelings of judgment, stigma and moral superiority get in the way of genuine and viable reforms. While the clinical community recognizes addiction as a medical disease and not simply a moral failing, there remains a stigma attached to it that interferes with meaningful prevention legislation, treatment accessibility and improved treatment outcome. The 21st century’s most urgent public health issue deserves 21st-century solutions; this begins by observing and recognizing our own vulnerabilities.