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Opioid epidemic needs comprehensive solutions

Wooster is no stranger to the opioid epidemic; many community members know a person who has overdosed, and patients are repeatedly overdosing right outside the Wooster Community Hospital. In 2015 there were 2,698 opioid-related deaths in Ohio, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. From 2015 to 2016, opioid and heroin-induced overdoses across the U.S. increased over 25 percent and are expected to continue to rise at a rapid rate. The opioid epidemic is definitely a public health crisis and needs a solution; however, there are many systems entangled in the problem that a simple declaration will not fix.

Although President Trump declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency, there was no prepared plan of action or dedication of money towards the initiative. In contrast, he is working to defund programs like Medicare and Medicaid that would be helping the issue. The only suggestions were to educate students to “Say No to Drugs” and make sure that police, EMTs and firefighters carry Narcan to reverse overdoses. In other words, it was just another politically charged statement with no weight. Yes, these actions may help, but they won’t solve the problem.

One facet of this problem is the incarceration system, specifically drug charges. We need to shift our policy for drug users from prison time to treatment programs. In the past, when we have tried to solve this problem, we created the “War on Drugs.” At the time, it seemed like an idea that would help clean up the streets; however, it led to the criminalization and mass incarceration of minorities by focusing drug policing on minority communities, particularly the black community. When the president declared a public health emergency without consulting health departments, it concerned me that incarceration, rather than help, will continue to be the “solution.”

Another system to address would be doctors’ prescribing practices. It has become an expectation that doctors will prescribe something when you are sick or in pain. When doctors don’t prescribe anything it can feel like a waste of money or betrayal. “Don’t you see I am in pain or I am sick?” This has caused doctors to prescribe antibiotics when you have a virus and powerful pain medicine when you may only need two Tylenol. The excessive prescription of pain medication and opioids is one of the root causes of this problem, as they can lead to addiction, resulting in the use of heroin and fentanyl. In order to change this system, we need to know more about pain and how it works, and we need to educate patients about addictive drugs.

No one system or group caused this problem, and the dehumanization of anyone will not fix it. This epidemic is caused by decisions that seemed harmless at the time but have built up into a complex problem. As a community, we can provide support for new and existing systems that bring multifaceted treatment options and support to community members who need help. We can encourage doctors to prescribe patients other pain medications before opioids. In addition, we can even open clinics and needle exchange programs to allow people to safely take heroin while providing education and support to those who engage in it.

Jennifer Shepheard, a Contributing Writer for the Voice, can be reached for comment at JShepheard18@wooster.edu.

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