Responsibility key to addressing drug problem

By KATHY MILES

Boyle County ASAP

Last week, Kentucky’s Office of Drug Control Policy released the 2016 report on the number of Kentuckians who died from drug overdoses last year. It was not good news: 1,404 overdose deaths were recorded, up from 1,248 in 2015. The 2016 number is still likely to rise as more final reports are received.

Between 2012 and the end of 2016, more than 2,000 more Kentucky citizens died of drug overdoses than died in car crashes. The 2016 increase can be partially attributed to the increase in the availability of fentanyl, which is currently being added to heroin available in Kentucky, making for a lethal combination.

Also last week, news of the proposed Senate health care bill was nonstop in the broadcast and print media. The possibility of many people losing their coverage coupled with a possible movement away from mandating that private insurance and Medicaid include mental health and substance abuse treatment were hard to reconcile with the news of Kentucky’s drug crisis.

As the discussions continue in Washington and in communities across our state and country, confusion abounds. Almost everyone knows changes need to occur, and an increasing number of people believe that the “war on drugs” has primarily been a failure.

Gov. Bevin was quoted last week when the new statistics were released as saying, “We must stand united against the opioid scourge and work together to find solutions. Failure is not an option.”

A word that might serve as a uniting guideline for solutions is responsibility.  A lot of irresponsible behavior has crept into our family and community life in recent years. Perhaps, if all segments of our society could do a better job of being responsible — parents, health care providers, pharmaceutical companies, elected officials, average citizens — we will begin to see the frightening statistics about substance abuse improve.  

As parents and grandparents, we can improve how we educate our children on alcohol and drugs, and on being active in their own health care. That requires that we educate ourselves as adults, in order to be able to give accurate information to kids. We can teach them the consequences of substance misuse, healthy ways to cope with problems, and how to seek help if there are problems.

As this particular opioid epidemic has shown us, it’s not good enough to teach responsible choices regarding street drugs. We must help our kids know how to ask questions, share information about themselves and be assertive in working with their health care providers regarding prescription drugs. Dr. Anna Lembke, in her book, “Drug Dealer, M.D.,” strongly advocates for a change in our expectations that the goal of a health care visit is to get a prescription to fix all problems.

Health care providers can be more responsible by listening more and asking questions that may be hard to ask, but just may save lives. Failing to ask about a patient’s alcohol and drug use, and family history of addiction is irresponsible, in light of what research now shows.   And, physicians and other health care providers can ask more difficult questions of pharmaceutical companies, and study the research on drugs with a trained and responsible eye.

Pharmaceutical companies — their management and their boards of directors — can step up to be more responsible in their development of new medications and marketing of pharmaceuticals. They have an important role to play in changing the societal attitude that pills are the most important part of health care. They can help us all use medications more appropriately for better health outcomes.  

Elected officials have many difficult decisions to make regarding health care and the substance abuse crisis. Many experts in health care are encouraging our leaders to responsibly and compassionately take time to look for solutions that bring about long term and sustainable change in the lives of our citizens. They may have to make decisions which are costly now, but may reduce costs and improve lives long after they are not in office. They can make responsible decisions that will help to make the children growing up today become healthier adults. We need more of those courageous decisions.    

There are many simple steps all of us can take to be more responsible and contribute to improvements in the substance abuse crisis around us. We can take our unused medications to the sheriff’s office’s or police department’s drop boxes; report suspicious activity that might be a drug deal; mentor a child who needs a consistent and caring adult; refuse to share medications with others; and tell the stories of people in long term recovery. If we currently have an alcohol or drug problem, we can make the difficult but responsible step of seeking help.  

Behind every one of those deaths by overdose last year is a story of a still-grieving family and friends.  We can reach out to them in kindness — it’s another responsible way to strengthen our community life in challenging times.

Kathy L. Miles is the coordinator for the Boyle County Agency for Substance Abuse Policy Inc.