Alarming rates of addiction and overdose deaths due to opioids, a class of drugs including prescription painkillers and heroin, has been called “the worst drug crisis in U.S. history” by the CDC. The epidemic impacts individuals and families nationwide and doesn’t discriminate based on status, wealth, or race.
Some areas have been hit harder than others. In New York City, the rate of drug overdose deaths increased by 41 percent between 2010 and 2013, according to the Health Department, and 77 percent of the overdoses in 2013 involved an opioid. Staten Island has been one of the hardest-hit boroughs in the city, with overdoses increasing four-fold between 2005 and 2011.
Ian Frazier’s recent article in The New Yorker clearly depicts the opioid epidemic’s unique impact on Staten Island. Frazier writes: “In 2012, thirty-six people on Staten Island overdosed on heroin and thirty-seven on prescription opioid pills, for an average of almost exactly one overdose death every five days.” This loss has devastated the area, particularly since so many who died from opioid overdoses were teens or young adults.
Why has Staten Island sustained a more debilitating blow from opioid addiction than other parts of the country? As many health experts have emphasized, the over-prescription of addictive painkillers largely fueled the opioid crisis. The prescribing rate in Staten Island is particularly high. Frazier writes, “In 2012, doctors and hospitals on Staten Island prescribed painkillers at a rate of about twice that of the rest of the city.” More Staten Islanders work in health care than in any other industry, providing easy access to pills, and many residents have health insurance that will cover the cost. After becoming addicted to painkillers, often through legitimate use, it is common for people to turn to heroin for a cheaper high.
The stigma associated with addiction kept the problem from being openly discussed within the community for some time. Now, government-led forums such as the New York State Senate Joint Task Force Panel Discussion on Heroin and Opioid Addiction and community programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and Pills Anonymous provide an outlet for the Staten Islanders to share their stories and seek support. Another effort to reduce the impact of opioid addiction in the borough is the implementation of a naloxone program. Naloxone is an opioid overdose antidote that was distributed to first responders in a Staten Island precinct in January this year, and by March, three people had been saved with it. The program was extended to the rest of the borough, and eventually the rest of the state. Due in no small part to these efforts, opioid overdose deaths decreased by 32 percent in Staten Island between 2011 and 2013, according to the Health Department.
While the naloxone program has saved many lives, it alone will not be enough to end the opioid epidemic. In Staten Island and across the country, addressing this crisis will take a multipronged approach: not only expanding access to treatment for people addicted to opioids, but also preventing future cases of addiction by prescribing addictive painkillers more cautiously.