Nancy Vaughan column: United, we can address the opioid crisis

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By Nancy Vaughan | For The Herald Bulletin Aug 27, 2017 
"I've seen the needle and the damage done,
A little part of it in everyone,
But every junkie's like a settin' sun."
— Neil Young, Needle and the Damage Done, 1971
I don’t like to take pain medicine or any medicine that makes me drowsy. I don’t like to be inebriated, high or otherwise impaired. That dislike doesn’t make me smarter or morally superior to anyone else. I know that I did not choose that trait any more than someone who struggles with addiction chose that path. Like so many other aspects in this lottery called life, I am a winner.
Yet, addiction is my problem. It’s your problem too. So far the 21st century can be described as the “Era of the Opioid.” Overdose deaths have quadrupled since 1999. There is no segment of the country nor demographic that is immune. In fact, the highest rate of addiction is among men aged 35-54, white or native American, from rural areas.
There are certainly elements of this crisis that are unlike past challenges: It can be traced to high rates of legal prescription usage that got out of hand before the addictive issues were fully understood, and it coincides with an unprecedented shift in our economic structure. Today, the rate of prescriptions are down, but the abuse has led to spinoff use of heroin, fentanyl and synthetic opioids.
There are also elements of this crisis that are common to all human struggles, primarily the interconnection of health, education and financial stability along with the interconnection of individuals, families and communities. As the opioid abuse problem has grown, more people have dropped out of the workforce, more babies are born with neonatal abstinence syndrome, more children have entered the foster care system, more workers have filed worker compensation claims, HIV and Hepatitis C have increased, and jails are bursting.
This epidemic has coincided with a loss of low-skilled jobs, lack of retraining opportunities as the nature of work changes, increased reliance on social welfare programs, an increase in persons who cannot find employment due to criminal records, and an increase in serious health conditions that rely on pain medication.
One recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that almost half of working-aged men not in the workforce take pain medication on a daily basis and the majority of those medications are prescriptions. Work is not more difficult than in previous eras, the study concludes, but “what’s changed is how people deal with pain.”
This problem cannot be ignored and will not be easily fixed. We must be willing to listen, learn and do what we can to build a path to health for individuals, families and communities.
Our United Way has joined in a statewide AmeriCorps project, United Against Opioids, to help build our capacity to work together toward solutions in our community. Groups such as Madison Health Partners and the Mental Health Coalition are actively engaging in conversation to find ways that we can prevent and address addiction and issues related to addiction.
You can help by supporting our organizations, reaching out to young people and others in need to offer encouragement and empathy, and engaging in dialogue that encourages compassion and proactive responses.
To live better, we must Live United.