The New York Times recently did a piece on the rapid demise of persons in the 45 to 60 age group, who have the highest death rate of any U.S. demographic, having passed up their elders in the race to eternity. The Times rightly ascribes this phenomenon to drug use, both licit and illicit..
The Herald-Leader also has headlined Kentucky’s serious epidemic of substance misuse and consequent death. On July 15, Linda Blackford reported, “Drug overdose deaths up 30 percent in Lexington last year; statewide number up 7.6 percent.” The numbers of deaths in Floyd and Pike counties are particularly distressing, but may even be under-reported, as are drug-related deaths statewide.
Drugs are more than likely part of the cause of death for those persons with high levels of substances in their systems who die from heart attacks, guns, motor vehicle and other accidents.
Overdose deaths are a good indicator of the lethality of this pandemic, but they do not give the whole story. A survey using coroners’ records between 2006 and 2011 shows that Floyd and Pike counties lead Kentucky in drug-related deaths. Looking at deaths of all causes where toxicology reports indicated that the deceased was heavily under the influence of drugs at the time of death, Floyd and Pike counties’ death toll represented 36 percent of all the drug-related deaths reported in 21 counties in the Fifth Congressional District (652 out of 1,830 drug-related deaths recorded between 2006 and 2011).
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With 2010 Census data and the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration’s methods for projecting addiction, the analysis of drug-related deaths makes the severity of the problem clear: In Eastern Kentucky just a bit more than the rest of the commonwealth, we are quietly slipping, sliding, lurching, staggering, and otherwise drug-affectedly dying like lemmings.
People with addiction say that untreated addiction leads to bleak outcomes: jail, institutions and death. Here in the eastern part of the state, our addicted citizens have been handing the prize to death with increasing frequency.
These data are a report card on our public policy: We long ago lost the war on drugs, and punitive approaches to addressing the problem amount to nothing short of a war on addicts. This problem is not going anywhere and the death rate continues to climb. It is long past time for policy to seriously address affordable, accessible treatment for those who are addicted before they end up in jail, institutionalized or dead.
There can be recovery from addiction if we plan for it. Recovering addicts know well that life is good for them, when the problem is treated.
James F. Recktenwald of Dwale is a certified alcohol and drug counselor with 43 years counseling experience, who enjoys long-term recovery himself of 35 years.