The subtitle in the article below refers to “addict parents”, as in “He’s an addict,” or, “She’s an addict.” Drug addicts do not have high social status in our communities. You take their children away and throw them in prison before you try to help them. The so-called opioid crisis is a crisis partly because we don’t want to see what’s happening in front of us. We have treated the problem so far as a matter of law enforcement. That’s why a policeman, and not someone else, searches the mother’s apartment for food to feed two small children in the article’s opening paragraph. We ask policemen take care of these problems for us.
What if we redefined this problem as a kind of slow-moving, geographically distributed mass suicide? People who take opioids of the type now available cannot be ignorant of what will happen to them. They might say, “That can’t happen to me,” or, “I’ll take my chances,” but after friends and other people you know in your community die, you don’t think that way anymore. You realize that if you do what your friends do, you’ll end the way your friends did. You realize drugs that powerful will kill you.
Suicide is not a law enforcement problem. You do not deal with suicide by arresting people, incarcerating them, and treating them like criminals. We don’t treat people who cut their wrists that way. Why would we treat people who take powerful opiates – or their synthetic cousins – differently?
Naturally you’ll say, “What should we do instead?” I don’t know. We need social psychologists, individual and family therapists, addiction specialists, ministers, neighbors, friends, extended family members, pastoral and family counselors, suicide counselors, social support groups like Narcotics Anonymous, and many others to help. Note I did not mention one government agency in that list. Government agencies go by written procedures that we call laws.
I know for sure – and you do, too, if you know someone who has dealt with depression or addiction – that treating mental health issues as law enforcement problems does not work. It has not worked before, and it certainly will not work in this case. I feel for the police men and women who find themselves involved in a crisis they did not make. They did not ask to be involved, nor are they trained for it. Yet after so many years of people dying by the thousands, our first and only response, in Massachusetts at least, is to pass more laws. If laws could help us here, we would have figured this problem out by now.
One way or another, people who kill themselves with opioids need our help. That goes for Prince and other musicians, it goes for Philip Seymour Hoffman and other actors and actresses, for all persons – famous or not – who die by their own hand. Of course it goes for the family a few neighborhoods over who doesn’t have anywhere to go. Everyone suffers from depression and hopelessness at some point. Everyone understands that these conditions often lead to death if you do not address them successfully. Successful aid usually comes from people you know, not from strangers who follow procedures.
I said I don’t have any recommendations, but I do have one. Take the stigma of criminality away from people who use opiates. We do not gain anything by treating people addicted to drugs as criminals. The designation adds a heavy layer of societal rejection to the user’s predicament, a consciousness that you have hit bottom irrevocably when everyone refers to you as “an addict.” That may be the word we’ve learned, but the dismissive contempt that accompanies the reference is the opposite of compassion. You cannot recover from depression if every adult who touches your life treats you as a criminal or a derelict.