“Heroin Deaths Top Highway Fatalities in NH”

Categories: Community Engagement

This post is a reprint of a letter from Linda Rubin, Director, Healthiest Community Initiative, Cheshire Medical Center / Dartmouth Hitchcock-Keene. It was shared in the Community Voices section of The Keene Sentinel.

I was shocked by this recent headline in The Keene Sentinel and other New Hampshire newspapers. And I was not the only one stunned by this news: The story went on to say that this recently-released statistic startled state lawmakers, law enforcement and medical communities.

According to the latest statistics from the state medical examiner’s office, New Hampshire recorded 321 drug-related deaths in 2014 (primarily from heroin, fentanyl or a combination of these and other drugs). Twenty years ago, drug-related deaths were about 40 per year, according to the state medical examiner.

A story in the Manchester Union Leader reported that one New Hampshire small town of fewer than 7,000 residents (Farmingham, N.H.) had seven drug deaths in the last six months alone; police officers in that town say they investigate one or two overdoses per week.

And the drug-related deaths reported in 2015 are even more sobering: The state medical examiner predicts drug-related deaths, by year end, will exceed 357 people.

The problem has become so acute that in June of this year Governor Hassan signed a bill making Naloxone (Narcan) – an emergency treatment that can reverse the effects of a heroin overdose and save lives — available not only to medical professionals and police, but also by prescription to family and friends of people with a history of opioid abuse.

While this lifesaving drug is a step to preventing needless deaths, what can we, as a community, do about drug addiction and its devastating effects on individuals and families? Addiction not only costs lives, but can ruin chances for employment, or cost an addict his or her job. According to a recent Sentinel article, Jack Wozmak, New Hampshire’s senior director for substance misuse and behavioral health, said that 30 to 40 percent of applicants fail drug screens.

It is an overwhelming problem, but many in our community are looking for solutions.

Is Isolation a Factor, and is Community a Solution?

For example, the City of Keene’s Mayor Kendell Lane has created the Addiction Solutions Task Force; the group is considering Wozmak’s suggestion to find ways to get employers involved by giving applicants who fail drug tests a chance to become sober so they can be hired.

The task force is also looking into encouraging peer-to-peer support within companies, and working with HR departments so that an admission of an addiction to an illegal drug — and a cry for help — will not get the addicted employee fired (addiction to illegal drugs is not protected by the American Disabilities Act).

This kind of support is exactly what Johann Hari, the author of the New York Times bestselling book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, asserts in his book. Drug addiction is directly related to isolation and lack of connectivity; it is only by creating community supports that we have a chance at reaching people who are addicted.

Hari points to one study of rats and drugs: “The rats with good lives didn’t like the drugged water. They mostly shunned it, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats used. None of them died. While all the rats who were alone and unhappy became heavy users, none of the rats who had a happy environment did.”

While some of Hari’s points in his book have come into question by critics (that social connection is not the magic bullet), he does raise some interesting questions that may provide a glimpse into the root cause of this devastating problem in our culture.

Criminalizing addiction, adds Hari, is also not helpful. For examples of what decriminalizing drugs can look like in a country, we can look at Portugal, which has eliminated criminal penalties for drug possession 12 years ago, and made possession of any drug (from cannabis to heroin) akin to a parking ticket. Instead, they took a community-minded health-centered approach (rather than a criminal-centered) to drug addiction; the result has been a significant decrease in adolescent drug use since 2003

What can we do here in the Monadnock Region about this problem?

Healthy Monadnock, in collaboration with community coalitions, local initiatives and other stakeholders, will focus on this controversial problem — and align interested citizens — at our 2016 Summit in May. We have invited Johann Hari as keynote speaker to open the discussion about the drug epidemic. He will share his thoughts on what we can do as a community to help those with addiction problems, and how to move forward. We invite you to join us.[Tweet “Healthy Monadnock Summit V will feature #JohannHari #ChasingtheScream”]

We may not know what to do — yet — but together as a community, we can move forward in coming up with a solution that can help those whose lives are ravaged by drug addiction and their families. Please share this post to encourage more people in our community to pay attention to these issues.