Over the weekend, we lost yet another brilliant actor — Philip Seymour Hoffman, who graced stage, film and TV with his incredible performances. He, like Amy Winehouse, Heath Ledger, Anna Nicole Smith and others, met his end through what now seems like a lethal combination of drugs, including heroin and cocaine.
We shouldn’t be surprised. Five years ago overdoses from prescription drugs, heroin and other substances became the leading cause of accidental death in America. Many ERs here and around the nation report an exponential increase in overdose related admissions, particularly for young adults, including those living in suburban communities.
It’s time to act. Let’s decriminalize drug use – let’s remove the stigma of “addiction” and call it what it is: a terrible disease suffered by a wide range of people, often caused by trauma. Let’s ensure that drug users have access to clean syringes, harm reduction and mental health services. That would be a start.
Did you know that with the exception of New York State and a couple of other jurisdictions, there are no syringe exchange programs because Federal money cannot be used to fund them? Once again ideology trumps public health. Despite decades of research showing that this intervention has reduced HIV incidence among drug users by as much as 85%, critics have argued that syringe exchange encourages drug use. Research shows that it does not.
Significant public health benefits have resulted from syringe exchange because programs not only distribute syringes but also pick up used ones and get them off the street. Syringe exchange is an outreach tool to get active users into all types of care – medical, mental health and substance abuse treatment, just to name a few.
We need to get tougher on the system, not the user. Currently many mental health providers won’t see a patient who is actively using. Isn’t that like an oncologist refusing to see someone because they have cancer? If Philip Seymour Hoffman had walked into a mental health clinic last Saturday afternoon and shared that he had just used heroin, should he have been turned away?
We also need to start having honest discussions with our kids. Why isn’t overdose prevention taught in health classes? Will teaching how to prevent a death encourage drug use? I doubt it. Wouldn’t you rather have a young adult, armed with overdoes prevention knowledge and tools, at a party where young people – maybe your daughter, son, grandchild, niece or nephew – were doing drugs, rather than stay in denial about the danger they may be in?
None of this will bring back Philip Seymour Hoffman or Amy Winehouse or Heath Ledger or the countless others who have died this way, but put into practice, it could save lives in the future. Overdose is fast becoming a new epidemic and public health crisis. There is a heroin overdose prevention bill advancing in the New York State Senate currently, but what about the Federal level? How many more celebrities and ordinary citizens dying of drug overdose will it take to move us forward?