The opioid and drug abuse epidemic has had a devastating effect on our society. In fact, in response to the skyrocketing overdose deaths throughout the country, President Trump and the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) declared the opioid epidemic a national health emergency in October 2017. Since that declaration two years ago, progress has been made to stem the tide of the opioid epidemic, but to truly solve the problem, the general public must fully appreciate the danger posed by drug abuse and addiction in our communities, and policymakers must bolster treatment-based programs that tackle the root causes of the epidemic.

Drug overdoses are the number one public health crisis in the country. Overdose deaths continue to increase, and every segment of the population is affected. Deaths are up among men, women, and across all races and ages. In fact, the problem has gotten so bad that more Americans died in one year from drug overdoses than car accidents, H.I.V., and gun deaths combined.

The good news is that progress has been made in battling the opioid epidemic. The federal government and most states have implemented meaningful policy interventions that have saved lives, and private sector innovations and increased awareness have limited the growth of addiction. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) even reports that opioid prescribing is at an 18-year low. As a result, deaths due to prescription opioid overdoses are falling nationally, and in specifically in Illinois, the rate of increase in overdose deaths slowed substantially in 2018.

The bad news is that the opioid and drug abuse epidemic is now being fueled by deadly illicit drugs that pose a dangerous problem in our communities. Illegal synthetic opioid deaths increased nationally by 46.6 percent in one year alone, and deaths from the synthetic opioid fentanyl increased by 520 percent in recent years. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) reports that fentanyl and counterfeit opioids are flooding into the U.S. from Mexico and China and are trafficked throughout the country. These drugs are so dangerous because they are typically 50 times more potent than heroin and can be deadly in a dose as small as a few grains of salt. Our immediate area has not yet seen much of these drugs, but several nearby counties have seen them in dangerous numbers, posing a serious threat to our communities right here in Iroquois County.

To combat the opioid epidemic, we must be honest about the addiction crisis in our community and do more to raise awareness about the risk posed to everyone. Drug addiction knows no bounds and affects people of all backgrounds and incomes. What was once a distant, far-away epidemic in other areas is now a growing crisis in our rural community. For this reason, a group of community, county, and regional leaders meets monthly as part of an opioid epidemic response group to raise awareness and brainstorm solutions to the problem locally. The group was organized in October 2018 with key community leaders to brainstorm solutions to the problem locally.

So far, our group has found that addiction treatment-based programs are a major part of the solution to the opioid epidemic. As of 2017, fewer than one in ten Americans with a substance abuse disorder received treatment. This is the case even though treatment programs have seen tremendous success nationally. The federal government recently announced $1.8 billion in funding to expand access to evidence-based treatment such as programs that ensure patients can successfully manage their pain at minimal risk of addiction and programs that integrate medical care into patients’ lives outside treatment centers.

The best solutions to the opioid epidemic appreciate that addiction is a disease that can be limited with greater public awareness and can be curbed through treatment and recovery programs. The problem will not be solved by turning a blind eye to the crisis or treating addicts like second-class citizens. We have to tackle the root of the problem of addiction, not just the consequences after the fact.

The next meeting of our local opioid epidemic response group, now named the Iroquois County Opioid Epidemic Coalition, will be held at Gibson Health of Watseka on November 20th at 10:00AM. From government and law enforcement to public health and education, the group is committed to bringing the community together to solve the opioid and drug abuse crisis locally. Everyone in the community has a role to play in battling the epidemic.

Susan Wynn Bence is the community liaison for the Gibson Area Hospital and Health Services. She founded and coordinates an opioid epidemic focus group, the Iroquois County Opioid Epidemic Coalition that meets monthly in Watseka.