Written By: Ryan Hampton
Ryan Hampton is currently the Los Angeles outreach lead for Facing Addiction, a national non-profit organization dedicated to ending the addiction crisis: http://facingaddiction.org
Let’s face it. America has a new epidemic on its hands. The confirmation yesterday that Prince died of an accidental drug overdose has sent shock waves through the national media and, once again, has sparked a conversation that’s long overdue. People are dying. And they’re dying by the masses.
But let’s back up a bit. Who knew? Prince, a seven-time Grammy winner, beloved by millions, died exactly the same way that my friend Greg did just a few months ago. Alone. In the process of seeking help. And with limitless resources at Prince’s disposal, Prince was unable to navigate a system that’s broken, antiquated, and prejudicial due to the stigma surrounding what is now the leading cause of accidental death in America. Prince is dead.
With no trusted place to turn, limited treatment options, and overwhelming fear that I would be “outed” as being addicted to heroin, I too almost became a statistic — one of the 129 people that die each day from an overdose. For over a decade, my “addiction caseworker” was my mom. A public school teacher who’d never imagined that her primary job for the better part of her latter years would be to save her own son’s life. Insurance companies wanted little to do with me because I was too “high risk.” Medical professionals, charging exuberant amounts of money, offered empathetic support but no effective continuum of care. And society, well they told me to “just say no.”
In 1993, at the height of its own epidemic, 41,920 people died from AIDS. Just this past year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported that 47,055 people died from accidental drug overdoses. We have far surpassed the threshold that this is America’s most urgent health crisis of our time. How is it then that we, as a country, are so far behind in treating addiction the same way we treat AIDS, cancer, heart disease, or even diabetes?
With over 22 million Americans currently suffering and a mortality rate that is clearly on the rise, politicians are scrambling for solutions. And although it may seem politically expedient during an election year for them to finally address this issue, we must not only embrace it but engage in the dialogue. These public tragedies need to inspire action. Not just longer gossip columns.
In 4 weeks time, I’ll leave my hometown of Los Angeles and drive cross-country to Philadelphia for the Democratic National Convention as an elected delegate from California’s 27th district. In this capacity, I have only one goal in mind: to advocate and inspire so that we no longer need mourn these senseless deaths month after month. The Democratic Party and their nominee have an historic opportunity staring them in the face. By inserting substantial language about the addiction crisis right into the center of their platform, and pledging to take bold action on this issue immediately, they will send a clear signal that the lives of tens of millions struggling and in recovery are not second-class citizens. They will no longer be ignored.
We must begin to integrate effective and ongoing care for addiction into standard medical practices. This, along with improved treatment and expanded, evidence-based prevention programs would be a start. More training for controlled substance prescribers, first responder access to the life-saving overdose anecdote naloxone, and removing the hurdles for treatment access should all be part of the national platform. As I cross 12 state lines on my way to the convention, I’ll be doing everything I can to talk about these issues and advocate for change, hoping that in some small way, my voice and the voices of those we meet along the way will be heard at a national party convention.
Our country can no longer afford to neglect the millions of Americans who struggle with addiction and leave our future icons, like my good friend Greg who was a talented musician in his own right, behind. Until we wake up as a nation and realize that history is repeating itself, except this time on a much more massive scale, will we be able to finally smash the social stigma, demand solutions, and end this epidemic once and for all.
Real change requires bold action. It may not be much, but with a little bit of gas money and a heart filled with hope that we can make an impact, I’ll do my part. I just hope America wakes up and does theirs.
1. NCHS. Advance report of final mortality statistics, 1993. Hyattsville, Maryland: US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, CDC. (Monthly vital statistics report; vol 44, no. 7).
2. CDC. Wide-ranging online data for epidemiologic research (WONDER). Atlanta, GA: CDC, National Center for Health Statistics; 2016. Available at http://wonder.cdc.gov