Editorial: Don’t overlook the human factor behind recent overdose deaths

The use of illegal drugs is a complicated subject, touching on several aspects of society. There’s the legal aspect, involving the police, the courts and the prison system. There’s the medical factor of addiction, the hospitals and treatment centers and the debate about how best to treat those caught in cycles of dependency. There’s the educational component, on how strategies are developed by the government, the schools and the media on how to produce clear, truthful information on what drugs are and what they do.

The Suffolk Times, Shelter Island Reporter and Riverhead News-Review have reported extensively on the crisis of opioid overdoses and the rash of deaths — and will continue to do so. This past week only reminds us how serious this crisis is.

Often overlooked is, perhaps, the most important part of this structure — the human element. When word comes of overdose deaths, as it did this past week, it’s easy to overlook those who have died — if we don’t know the individuals. But worse than overlooking them and not realizing they were part of our community, is to stereotype them, placing them in a category and ignoring the fact that they were very much like us. 

Alcohol and drug dependency exists in every community, every economic class, every race and ethnic group. These days — maybe always? — it’s rare to find a family that has not been affected by a loved one who is dependent on alcohol or drugs. 

The crisis is not limited to where we live, but is everywhere in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drug overdose deaths rose by nearly 30% in the United States in 2020 compared to the year before. Last year, the CDC reports, 93,000 people died from “synthetic opioids (primarily fentanyl) and psychostimulants such as methamphetamine … Cocaine deaths also increased in 2020, as did deaths from natural and semi-synthetic opioids …”

There is work to be done on the levels of society — law enforcement, the court system, public health strategies, the media, government and education — to battle the forces that have ruined so many lives and brought sorrow and grief to too many families. A good start in that work is to see those who have died as real, whole human beings who have loved and been loved.

We are grateful that Narcan training programs have been available in our hamlets and towns and are proliferating. The crisis in our communities is such that carrying a Narcan kit in our cars is a good idea, along with the more routine items such as tire pressure gauges, car registrations and insurance cards.

This past week in Southold, Greenport and Shelter Island reminds us that the scourge of opioids continues. We must find ways to save lives, through preparation, training and education, but also how we talk to our family members and co-workers. And our school districts must open up this year by talking seriously with students about the poison that has found its way here.