Ammlung: Focus on fixing despair, not just drug problems

One of my colleagues is chaplain for the Atlantic City, N.J., Police Department. At a recent church gathering, he said that the opioid addiction crisis caused Gov. Chris Christie to urge widespread training in emergency treatment of known or suspected opioid overdose. All first responders, as well as others able to assist (including police chaplains), must learn to administer Narcan nasal spray to individuals who have collapsed and are unresponsive. “The advice is, when in doubt, don’t hesitate, just do it.”

He wryly observed that, as a 70-year-old man with a history of heart disease, he could collapse from a heart attack and someone would still shove the spray up his nose before thinking to administer CPR.


Nevertheless, he continued, this drug is a critical tool for combating opioid overdoses. Timely Narcan administration brings lives back from the brink of death. The Carroll County Times recently reported that alert librarians helped a woman who had collapsed. Teachers in middle and high schools are being trained and equipped to deal with drug overdoses. Administration of Narcan may replace CPR as a basic first-aid skill, as my friend’s half-joking remark indicated.

Many other “tools” are needed to address the addiction crisis. We need more effective rehabilitation centers available on-demand. Some people believe that decriminalizing drugs — even heroin — would help. They mention lower crime rates, fewer jail sentences and reduced gang violence. They insist that decriminalization leads to de-stigmatization, which encourages people to seek treatment for addiction.

Others argue that increased prescription of painkillers has already de-stigmatized drug use. Not only has that led to increased opioid use (and addiction) among prescription holders, it has also led to theft and abuse of those drugs by others. Further, those addicted often turn to tainted heroin when the cost, availability and efficacy of legal drugs become untenable. If decriminalization adds to the number of addictions — and deaths from overdose — it may solve some problems, but create greater ones.

My chaplain friend observed: “We hear that Narcan is saving thousands of lives. It’s more accurate to say that it’s saving bodies, not lives. The real challenge is how to reach into and transform those people whose bodies have been snatched from the brink of death.”

In March, the Brookings Institute published an article about Princeton professors Anne Case and Sir Angus Deaton, who in two papers revealed “a shocking increase in midlife mortality” among non-Hispanic whites with a high school diploma or less. The principal reason for the increase is what they term “deaths of despair” by suicide, alcoholism and drugs. They “document an accumulation of pain, distress and social dysfunction” leading to a widespread increase of deaths of despair.

Another study, by Scott Winship, charts the correlation between opiate overdoses and socioeconomic markers. Overall, poorer, less-educated Americans are more vulnerable, for a variety of reasons. However, National Review writer David French, reflecting on Winship’s work, notes: “What truly shocks is the disproportionate impact on single Americans — both divorced and never-married … . The result is an actual decline in American life expectancy — not one due to a disease outbreak or cancer surge but rather due to Americans in such deep emotional pain that they’re essentially quitting on a productive life and instead seeking to ease their pain through drugs, alcohol, or — in extreme cases — the wrong end of a gun.”

French asks the question implied by my friend: “Our national response is so often focused on the means of self-destruction: What can we do about drugs? … But it’s time to ask a different, deeper question: What can we do about despair? … [There] is no despair quite like the despair of loneliness … . Of course, addiction can strike anyone, but the data are overwhelming. Not every category of American is equally vulnerable. Though an intact family isn’t a foolproof shield against hopelessness, despair, and addiction, it’s still a shield. ... Let’s treat addicts, yes, but let’s not forget that while there’s no way to inoculate any person against addiction, a life of faith, hope, and love is a good start.”

Narcan, detox facilities, and just and humane laws are necessary tools. But moving beyond saving bodies to saving lives will require addressing the despair, dysfunction and sheer loneliness endured by too many who succumb to the beckoning numbness of addiction. Strong families, communities of faith, and simple human connections will be critical components in truly saving lives.