Legal Drugs & the Pain, Colltalers
Since the early 2000s, there’s been an explosion of overdoses and suicides in the U.S. And those affected don’t fit the ‘war on drugs’ template, of illegal trade and victimized minorities, which corrupted law enforcers, enriched a few, and wrecked the life of millions.
Drugs involved now are mostly legally prescribed, and manufactured in sophisticated labs, not shacks in South American jungles. And many, who are getting hooked and ultimately poisoned by them, are middle-aged, former middle-class professionals, driven by despair.
Two separate statistical studies – about overdoses by prescription opioid pain relievers, and suicides by impoverished white Americans – help shed some light on this alarming trend, even as there isn’t yet scientific research establishing a link between the findings.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, between 2001 and 2014, there has been a jump in lethal overdoses of prescription opioids, from less than 6,000 to almost 20 thousand, and rising. And from 1999 to 2013, a study by Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton, 2014 Nobel laureates, showed a spike of 20% in the rate suicides of white Americans, aged 45 to 54.
Even without comprehensive research on these data, other stats have shown that they intersect, revealing a troubling trend of life in the U.S., circa 21st century. The CDC has its own figures for suicides and they somehow converge to those of Case and Deaton.
For instance, while deaths by own hand haven’t changed for younger and older people, there was a noticeable rise of 28 percent for those between 35 and 64 years old, from 1999 to 2010, and in the case of whites, a 40 percent increase in the same period.
The focus on race, in this case white, is appropriated, because of the general perception that it’s the one with the most
privileges. That’s been true for over two centuries, and the fact that U.S. demographics have changed so much in the past decades may offer a clue to the causes behind the trend. But there are others too, concerning gender, race and ethnicity, that speak of the U.S. as a whole.
The most dramatic is, of course, income inequality. By now, we’re all cognizant about how a ridiculously small percentage of the world population controls half of its wealth, including material possessions and natural resources. In the U.S., the lucky top 0,1% individuals, worth as much as the struggling bottom 90%, could all fit in a commute bus. But they’d probably refuse to board it.
What they’re unlikely to refuse is to invest in pharmaceutical companies, among the most profitable industries of the past decades, along their relatives, healthcare insurers, banking and finance, food corporations, and weapon manufacturers.
In fact, according to Statista, pharma’s worldwide revenue went from over $390 billion in 2001, to almost a trillion in 2014. Given that not many major diseases have been eradicated in the period, and considering the increased prescription drug use, and abuse, is not hard to get the picture: we’re being sold annually an ever more expensive aspirin, while our health continues to fare poorly.
The recent breakthrough in the treatment of Hepatitis C, for instance, offers a glimpse of the appalling state of healthcare in the U.S. And how the better and shorter-term therapy isn’t likely to help most of the estimated world’s 150 million afflicted by the disease.
A cure for the virus, which causes progressive liver damage, possible cancer, and need for transplant, was finally reached with a new drug combination, centered on Gilead Sciences’ Sovaldi. Besides reducing treatment to three months, from an average two years or never, in case of complications, the drug was also hailed for lack of severe side effects linked to old treatments. Great, right?
Well, you haven’t heard how much the lab is charging a pill: $1,000, $84 thousand for the entire treatment. Now guess how many of those already infected have the financial means, or a reasonable healthcare plan, to afford the treatment. Which means few having access to it, whose condition will remain a burden to the country’s already overextended and underfunded public health system.
Speaking of access to affordable health care, regardless of what Obamacare has accomplished, is still out of reach to older workers, who, no longer having jobs with benefits, are contractors, another pearl of archaic labor practices, revived by the ‘new economy.’
Other factors, hidden or interrelated, compound to this deadly mix of addiction to prescription drugs, due to age-related physical ailments, and depression, for diminished opportunities for growth. In the case of males, too, there’s another reference that is also a throwback of the past: the stigma of no longer being provider and head of household, today a role increasingly exercised by women.
Behind the stats, there’s also low education as a drive for misconceptions about race and class, and feelings of frustration that often turn violent. Some would add here that that’s exactly the fuel a certain party and a certain presidential candidate have both been prone to stoke and benefit from. That is unlikely that either one will take responsibility for what comes next is both sad and tragic.
Two final points about this above-average depressing post, even for our low standards: the escalation inherent to the addiction spiral, and the spirit of the age we’ve all been living, which has been far than uplifting, and in the case of a great majority, downright bleak.
Where the studies about drug overdoses leave off, and the headlines pick it up, is what happens when someone is hooked on a powerful opioid, say Percocet like Prince, but unlike him, can no longer afford a prescription. They generally hit the streets after the ‘real’ thing, heroine. And that’s been too often the case, when a middle-aged mother is found on her kitchen floor with a needle.
And speaking of Prince’s tragic demise, is another reminder that even someone that talented and celebrated can, and often will, fall prey to addiction trying to cope with physical and psychic pain. Close associates are often oblivious or not helpful preventing it.
Such sense of isolation is, ultimately, another drive for suicide, or other forms of self-punishment. When all is said and done, we all have to deal with our personal demons, which is not necessarily only of the material kind, as in lack of rent money, for example.
It’s heartbreaking that in the very ‘home of the brave and land of the free,’ more people are neither. With little sympathy for those who don’t fit the cliche, many are simply too ashamed to reach out to peers or medical professionals, to share their fears and hopelessness.
We’re fast becoming a cruel nation, that won’t forgive anyone who’s not famous and privileged; a place where teachers and community leaders are mocked on social media: and the rhetoric of politicians jockeying for high office is made of up of petty insults, epithets of hate, and self aggrandizing. A country that quickly turns its back on the wounded and the frayed, for not looking too good on TV.
It’ll take more than labs producing cheap drugs to save lives, not their shareholders’ bottom lines, and medicines that alleviate pain, without adding to another self-destructive habit. But a compassionate society could as well start there, valuing the effort that many go through just getting up every morning, and making sure they’re measured up by the depth of their character, not their checking account.
We should be worried that too many of us are giving it up, or wasting their days in search of relief, physical or otherwise. We must find a better way of sharing an already trying time, and honor the ideals we like so much to lecture the world about.
What the stats don’t say, and the headlines make a point to ignore, is that those whose pain is so unbearable that they could only see one way out, went through their moment of reckoning as if they were the only humans left on earth with such a burden to bear.
There are already too many children at the shooting rage, and not enough volunteering; enough black teenagers slain in the streets, and even more minorities sent to prison; we need to stop sending our young to wars no one understand, and teach them a different lesson.
This is the inclusive nation that generations of immigrants shed blood and tears to make it their home. We shouldn’t need sad stats or a tragic headline to remind us that it should be also the heart and soul to our humanity. Have a great week ahead. WC