Drug overdose deaths surged in 2020

In the last 18 months or so, it has only worsened.
Published: Jul. 27, 2021 at 8:19 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - We’re On Your Side Tonight, with a problem.

Here’s how one expert put it to the New York Times: “It’s huge, it’s historic, it’s unheard of.”

Before the COVID pandemic, there was an opioid epidemic.

In the last 18 months or so, it has only worsened.

Overdose deaths soared to a record 93,000 people last year.

The number has been rising for years.

Experts have said, there’s no evidence that more Americans started using drugs last year. Instead, these increased deaths were people who were already struggling.

The pandemic exacerbated that.

Peggy Terhune from Monarch Mental Health says we can’t forget these numbers are people. Their families are hurting.

Jamie: We’ve got to remind ourselves those aren’t numbers. Those are people. Those are people who are loved by someone. That makes it really difficult, doesn’t it?

Peggy: It really does. One of my staff, I had sent her a sympathy card and she wrote me back and said my brother was a good person. He struggled with substance use disorder from the time he was 18. He died in his early 30s. He’d been to treatment a couple of times. He had just slipped again. I think what he thought he was doing was taking a pain pill, but it turned out to be laced with fentanyl. And it killed him so he didn’t wanna die. He wasn’t trying to die, but he died anyway and the people that are left behind are always devastated. And the sad thing is, they always feel guilty. They feel like. What could I have done differently? What should I have done differently? And the bottom line is if someone is addicted, they have an illness.

Jamie: I’ve talked to a number of therapists throughout the pandemic and they felt like maybe we were making some progress on mental health issues relative to that stigma, you know, that that you’re kind of talking about right there? Are we making progress though, when it comes to addiction?

Peggy: People are recognizing that this is a problem and they’re trying to stop. But it’s not enough, because people still can get addicted and so I think it’s important to talk about why people pick up that drug the first time. We also see it very much through the pandemic. We’ve seen it with people who were coping OK with life, and they got so anxious and they got so depressed and life was bad. How many people did we see couldn’t work? People couldn’t go out. People couldn’t follow their normal routine. Those are all things that are important to us. Well, when you don’t feel good if you have a headache, you’ve got to go get an aspirin, right? Or a Tylenol or Advil or whatever you use. So when you don’t feel good because you’re worrying and you’re depressed, you might be more likely to turn to alcohol or a different kind of pill to make you feel better, and so people think, well it’s not a big deal. I’m at home, I’m not driving, I can do this and yet that’s what starts the addiction process.

Peggy says in all of this, there is some hope. Monarch has been busy. That’s a good sign.

“I can’t tell you how busy our phone lines are,” she says, “We’ve had to add so many more people answering our phones because people are calling. They’re calling continually. Over the last three years, I think our average seeing people with substance use problems was about 5,500 and this year we’re already on target to hit 6,500. The good news is they’re reaching out for help.”

The Addiction Policy Forum found that people trying to achieve recovery have reported big increases in worry (62%), sadness (51%), fear (51%), and loneliness (42%).

Remember, these are people who understand their addiction. Imagine the people who don’t. They may be experiencing all the same things - but don’t realize they are struggling with addiction. What do we do? How do we help others who we see are struggling? Here’s what Peggy says.

Peggy: When you say what do we do? How do we deal with this? So much of it is education, but it’s also you go home and you talk to your neighbor and your neighbors. I’m just so depressed. I can’t go anywhere and I’m not ready to go out to eat because I’m afraid that I’ll bring home the virus to my vulnerable grandchild. It’s important to not hear that as someone moaning and complaining. It might be someone who actually has a problem, a disease, and you need to recognize that it’s a disease.

Jamie: Well, let’s take that one step further then. How should we talk to someone if we are concerned that they could be slipping into whether it’s abusing drugs, suicidal thoughts, etc.?

Peggy: Generally, what we need to remember is that people are sick. So, we don’t tell them, ‘Oh, you’ll get over it.’ We don’t say, ‘Don’t worry, tomorrow it will feel better.’ It won’t feel better tomorrow. What we do instead is we listen carefully and we suggest to someone what we’re seeing. This is important because when you’ve been using drugs a lot or drinking a lot, you don’t remember. You have blackouts, and so you might say to someone, ‘Boy, you really did this last night’ and they’ll say ‘No, I didn’t.’ And they don’t believe you. Well, don’t think they’re lying. It’s not that they’re lying, it’s that they don’t legitimately remember. So again, don’t treat them like they’re bad. Don’t treat them like they’re wrong. Treat them, instead, like a person who is sick and who needs help. Tell them specifically what you saw. But also, be encouraging. Tell them that there’s help. If necessary, give them a phone number. Offer to go with them for services. You might even have some thoughts prepared about you know where you would go in your specific area. It’s really important to do that.

Jamie: Peggy, there might be someone watching tonight who doesn’t have someone to turn to right now and they might be alone. What would you say to them directly right now to maybe give them some hope to go forward?

Peggy: You’ve got to keep trying because there is hope and because we know if you try to stop, the chances are really good you’ll go back and use again. It’s OK, you have a disease. You’re not morally inept. You don’t have a bad character. You’re not a bad person. You have a disease just like if you had heart disease, you’d go to a heart specialist. You know when you have a cold or the flu, you go to your doctor. Well, you happen to have a substance use disorder. It’s an illness. You need help. You know, maybe the first treatment didn’t work. How many times have you had an ear infection and you take the antibiotic and then you have to go back to the doctor and they go, ‘Well, that wasn’t powerful enough. We need to give you another drug, OK?’ Well, substance abuse is the same thing. You might need some kind of other help and you might just need to do it again, but there is hope you can get clean. You can have a wonderful life and there are tons of people out there that you can talk to in those AA meetings that will tell you, life can be really good after using.

Like Peggy said, there is help out there. SAMHSA has a national, 24/7 hotline for treatment referrals for anyone facing mental health disorders or substance abuse disorders. You can call 1-800-662-HELP anytime to get some guidance.

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