The Opioid Epidemic May Be Even Worse Than We Thought

By Peter Schorr, President

Every day, countless headlines and major news outlets hammer home the devastating effects of the opioid epidemic. But what we’re seeing on the front page may only be the tip of the iceberg.

The opioid overdose and death statistics come from numbers reported by hospitals and coroners—but those numbers may not always be accurate. As the Washington Post recently reported, some coroners will state the cause of death simply as an overdose, without stating the specific drug used. Because of this, opioid overdose deaths may be underreported by as much as 35%. While Native American and Alaska Native overdose death rates have increased fivefold over a six year span, these numbers may actually be even higher, since coroners sometimes misidentify the race of these groups on death certificates.

We also don’t know how many opioid overdoses are intentional suicides.

What we do know is that many families and communities are suffering as a result of this epidemic. We know there are people out there getting addicted to opioids everyday—or who may be dealing with an ongoing addiction and haven’t hit rock bottom yet. They are still getting up, going to work, and struggling silently with the shame and stigma of their disease. We know that children are losing their parents. Parents are overdosing with their children in the backseat. And some foster care systems are overwhelmed.

But these individuals, who are directly impacted by the opioid epidemic, aren’t being tracked by the CDC. Their problems are real, even if they can’t be reported in a statistic or mapped on a chart.

While we’ve made strides in bringing this crisis to the forefront of public consciousness, we can still do more. Let’s break down the stigma of addiction and shift the conversation so it’s fully recognized as a disease. From community education classes to changing the way doctors treat addiction and talking about the coexisting mental health disorders that can sometimes fuel this disease. This will encourage people struggling with addiction to get help, before they lose their kids—or become an overdose statistic.