America is still in the middle of an opioid epidemic. Why did we stop talking about it?

The social isolation brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic is making treating the opioid epidemic so much harder.

Jim Wahlberg
Opinion contributor

Over the past few years, opioids have become a political battleground. For proof, look no further than the first presidential debate when, in response to a comment by President Donald Trump, former Vice President Joe Biden said, “My son like a lot of people at home had a drug problem. He’s overtaking it. He’s fixed it. He’s worked on it. And I’m proud of him, I’m proud of my son.”

Unfortunately, when addiction mixes with politics, we forget there are real people struggling, and that has fatal consequences.

I know the struggle of addiction too well. After recovering from my years-long battle with drugs and alcohol, I watched my son battle with his own addiction. I can say without a doubt that it was more painful to witness my son go through the experience than it was to endure the hardships of my own drug use. And so my question is this: When did the mothers, fathers, sisters and children struggling with substance misuse become numbers and statistics used as tools for political gain? No child chooses that path for themselves, and no parent chooses that path for their child.

In addition to being an election year, 2020 has been fraught with concern, understandably about the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, opioid addiction hasn’t gone anywhere. Instead, it has gotten worse.

COVID-19 sets the stage for struggle

One in 12 American adults struggles with a substance use disorder. Nearly 72,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2019, nearing record numbers.

The number of opioid-related deaths are on track to be even higher this year:

►Overdose deaths increased by about 10% in the first three months of 2020, as compared with the same time period last year.

►Since the pandemic began, more than 40 states have recorded increases in opioid-related deaths, according to the American Medical Association.

►In a June survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 13% of U.S. adults said they had started or increased substance use to deal with the stress of COVID-19.

►And the National Institutes of Health confirms that those with opioid-use disorder are more vulnerable to the coronavirus.

My family isn’t alone:I lost my son to an opioid overdose. COVID-19 will only bring more deaths of despair.

One devastating effect is that the COVID-19 pandemic is making a crucial factor in treating addiction so much harder: human connection. Addiction can be fueled by loneliness, isolation and depression. “Social isolation has always been a huge component of drug overdose risk,” Traci Green, an epidemiologist at Brown University, told The New York Times.

We are now living in an environment that breeds destructive behaviors and life-threatening addictions. People are taking drugs to cope with feelings that seem overwhelming and unending.

I was one of those people. Dorchester, where I grew up, is one of the Boston communities that would gain a reputation as ground zero for the opioid epidemic. It started with guys robbing drugstores to steal OxyContin, led to our neighbors making more high stakes robberies to pay for what they needed to avoid dope sickness, and eventually grew into the Goliath we’re fighting today.

Jim Wahlberg in 2016.

In my case, I drank my first beer at 8 years old, smoked weed at 10 and by the time I was a teenager, I was putting anything in my system that I could get my hands on, as long as I thought it would change how I felt. I went to prison at 17 for assault and then for home invasion when I was 22. I finally got sober when I found a 12-step fellowship and my Catholic faith during a nine-year state prison sentence. But if things had gone another way, I could easily have been dead by 25.

Make a human connection

Addiction isn’t something we beat alone — I certainly didn’t find recovery alone. The disruption of 12-step and addiction support groups during the COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating. Residential programs have shut their doors, and much of the safety net is cut. I hope the release of my book telling my recovery story, and a short film and documentary about a family looking for answers after a young mother’s overdose, can help bring attention to this need.

Too often we are reactive, not proactive, when it comes to offering people help and healing from addiction. We wait for them to come to us. A lot of them never do.

As a society, we would be wise to stop placing blame on people doing the best they can with a chronic brain disorder — and start taking steps to address the problem. If our neighbor tells us their child has cancer, we bring over food, cut their grass and offer to watch their other children. But if our neighbor tells us that their child is addicted to drugs, we tell our kids to stay away from that house.

Editorial Board Editor Bill Sternberg:The opioid crisis hits home. Mine.

Let’s start reaching out to friends and neighbors. Let’s start asking whether we can do anything to help. Let’s start caring about the real people who are struggling with this problem, instead of locking the doors and hoping it doesn’t get into our house.

Our leadership has to start pushing actionable plans that address the problem from the ground up. If adults 18-25 are the most likely age group to use addictive drugs, then action starts with parents talking to their children about opioids. It starts with school programs that explain addiction to young people in terms they can understand. It starts with providing mental health resources to our teens, and even incorporating more faith-based resources into recovery.

Ask anyone with long-term sobriety or abstinence from drugs and alcohol whether they think faith might be part of the solution. In my experience, many will tell you it is. A 2019 study in the Journal of Religion and Health found that “religious beliefs, practices and belonging as well as spiritual programs inspired by faith in a higher being significantly contribute to the prevention of and recovery from substance abuse.”

In my case, it was the thing that saved me.

Thankfully, my son is in recovery and with family. But our country is in trouble. Our kids are in trouble. Let’s start talking about what we’re going to do about it, instead of arguing about who has done more than the other person. The reality is there’s a lot more work that needs to be done, and we won’t get there by burying the problem under a lot of partisan noise.

Jim Wahlberg is the author of a memoir, “The Big Hustle: A Boston Street Kid’s Story of Addiction and Redemption,” and the creator of the short film “What About the Kids?” He is also the director of the Mark Wahlberg Youth Foundation, created to improve the quality of life for inner city youth. Follow him on Twitter: @JWahlly

America is still in the middle of an opioid epidemic. Why did we stop talking about it?

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