Drug Addiction: A Complex Problem Requiring Complex Solutions

Every day, 91 Americans die from an opioid overdose. This shocking statistic is a clear signal that we are currently in the midst of the worst drug crisis in US history, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Drug overdose is the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50, largely attributed to the rapidly worsening rates of opioid abuse. How this opioid epidemic spread across the nation is complex; similarly, treating the affected, preventing more deaths, and stopping the spread of this epidemic requires complex solutions.

Though the problem is widespread, so are the efforts to stop it. This year at TEDMED, we will hear the stories of three individuals leading the fight against the opioid crisis, and drug addiction more broadly. These Speakers come from West Virginia, which has the highest overdose rate in the country, a community library in Pennsylvania that sits next to an open space referred to as “Needle Park”, and British Columbia, Canada, home of the first legally-sanctioned supervised safe injection site in North America. By innovatively engaging their communities to combat the devastating opioid crisis, the TEDMED Speakers highlighted below are implementing promising new strategies to help stem the tide of this epidemic.

One of those individuals is Jim Johnson, the Director of the Mayor’s Office of Drug Control Policy in Huntington, West Virginia—a city with 10% of its 50,000 residents addicted to opioids. In Huntington, like in many cities and towns all across America, people from all walks of life—the young mother, the retired steelworker, the teenager—are affected by opioids, and the entire community bears the weight of addiction. One strategy that Huntington has used to deal with the drug crisis is incarceration. However, recent analyses have found that while state and federal prisons across the US house nearly 300,000 prisoners for violating drug laws, strict prison terms have not been correlated with decreases in drug use or drug related crime. As a former police chief and jail administrator, Jim realized that alternatives to incarceration were needed to effectively tackle addiction in his community. In his role at the Mayor’s Office, instead of solely working to curb the supply of illicit drugs, Jim chose to focus on decreasing demand. He’s partnered with diverse community organizations to help divert people addicted to opioids away from the prison system and to assist them in gaining access to treatment and reclaiming their health.

Huntington, West Virginia

The toll of addiction also reaches into schools, and tens of thousands of US children are affected by the opioid crisis. Like many of the children in Huntington, West Virginia, Chera Kowalski grew up exposed to drug abuse through her parents, who have been in recovery for over twenty years. Today, Chera is the Adult/Teen Librarian at the McPherson Square branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, located in a neighborhood heavily affected by opioid abuse. Chera views the opioid crisis as a community issue, driven not just by individual behavior but by social determinants including limited employment, lack of housing, inadequate mental health treatment, and poor education.

Viewing the library as a public resource for her neighborhood, Chera sees her role, and the role of all public libraries, as one of community support and responsiveness. When Chera goes to work, she is there to help whoever comes through the library doors with whatever they need, to the best of her ability, at any time. Due to the library’s proximity to “Needle Park,” she is often involved in direct intervention with Naloxone—the injectable or nasal spray that blocks the effects of opioids—when someone overdoses outside the library. Other times, her role comes in the form of providing a supportive space for the young people in her community. Chera encourages kids affected by the opioid crisis to come to her for advice that often extends far beyond summer book recommendations and instead revolves around how to navigate difficult realities in their lives.

The Free Library of Philadelphia, McPherson Square Branch

Like Chera, Mark Tyndall, the Executive Medical Director for the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control, understands the importance of diverse types of community support for people and families battling drug addiction. Focused primarily on developing and implementing harm reduction models, Mark works closely with InSite, the first legally-sanctioned supervised injection facility in North America, which offers a clean location where people using illicit drugs can be treated with dignity. InSite also provides researchers with a valuable platform for data collection, enabling them to better understand the driving forces behind addiction. One such driving force is underlying trauma, as patients often use drugs to self-medicate. Mark believes that the best way to combat opioid addiction is by treating these underlying drivers and, in doing so, decrease demand for drugs.

The opioid crisis is complicated, and it demands intervention on multiple levels. These three TEDMED 2017 Speakers are pursuing solutions that help those affected across this spectrum. They are not alone, and a number of TEDMED’s Partner organizations are also working to combat this epidemic. Dr. Patrice Harris, head of the American Medical Association’s task force on opioid abuse will also be attending TEDMED this year, and she is calling for greater attention on treatment, saying that, “Until treatment for substance-abuse disorders is fully funded, I worry we won’t be able to reduce the number of overdose deaths.”

Given the severity of the opioid epidemic, we are looking forward to convening with these individuals and hearing their insights about this pressing health issue at this year’s TEDMED event. Their evidence-based health policy efforts, alongside their innovative and collaborative initiatives, are mobilizing communities to treat the underlying causes of the opioid epidemic, but there’s still more to be done. Join us this November to engage with these Speakers and to hear from them first-hand.