Turning the tragic overdose death tide that continues to sweep Kentucky requires us make a big change in our thinking—we must stop stigmatizing a gripping illness so its sufferers can manage to be open about their problem and obtain treatment.
For a generation, we have attacked substance abuse as a law enforcement problem, which to a degree it can be. But to weaken and break down the heartbreaking chain of death requires us to view the problem in medical terms so that the victims have a route to successful treatment.
You cannot treat people like criminals and expect them to act like patients.
Last year, overdose deaths in Kentucky rose a heart-stopping 54% to 2,104. We weren’t alone—overdose deaths exploded all over the United States. And every single one was a shattering tragedy not just for the individuals whose promising lives were cut short but for their families, friends and loved ones these losses ripple out across. Those wounds are permanent.
This year my family felt it.
In July, my 30-year-old son’s life ended in a bedroom at his grandmother’s house in Louisiana due to a problem he had adamantly denied and successfully hidden from his family and ex-wife for years. About a week before dying unintentionally, he refused his childhood best friend’s pleas to get medical help, literally saying he was afraid to go to jail.
Substance abuse often brings destructive changes in thinking, decision making and behavior, but the best experts—those who have been there and back—are adamant that even in the depths of their deluded rationalization, no one wants to live with the chains of addiction.
Overdoses ranked just behind diabetes as a top cause of death even before the pandemic last year created conditions that worsened this problem and led to more substance abuse in all categories. We are losing too many. And it is happening at a time when we need all our fellow community members more than ever.
For nearly a decade, the business community has taken a lead in trying to bring constructive change to how substance abuse is addressed, having realized that this is an important piece of the broader effort to grow and improve our workforce. Private and public leaders alike understand that workforce issues are at the heart of the regional, national and global competition that creates economic winners and losers.
Our families need us to succeed as well.
Kentucky is taking some of the right steps. The General Assembly and Gov. Andy Beshear enacted and signed HB7 in March with the specific intent to lessen stigma and increase access to treatment for substance abuse. Attorney General Daniel Cameron worked to get Kentucky $460 million in a multistate settlement with opiate drug makers over the next decade plus. HB 427 gives half that money to local governments with the other half to be apportioned by a Kentucky Opioid Abatement Advisory Commission.
Achieving the success that is vital on so many levels requires we do the work to lift the stigma and shame we have attached to substance abuse. Addiction is not a moral shortcoming; it is a deadly illness. Imagine if diabetics feared seeking medical help. We need all our friends, coworkers and family members—and they need us. Support this step forward and we all win.
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