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Let’s Reclaim Obituary Page for Long, Full Lives, Instead of Tragedies of Addiction

Let’s Reclaim Obituary Page for Long, Full Lives, Instead of Tragedies of Addiction

Published in the Bangor Daily News

Call me a throwback, but I’m still a fan of daily newspapers. In fact, most days I read hard copies of the Bangor Daily News, Portland Press Herald and several other papers just to keep up with current news as part of my job.

Like many people, scanning the obituaries is part of my routine. More often than not, the obits offer a glimpse into the lives of Mainers who have led full — and typically long — lives. But lately, I’ve noticed a different, disturbing trend with young faces increasingly interspersed with photos of 80- and 90-year-olds.

Last week, a photo of a smiling, jaunty looking 21-year-old man who had “died unexpectedly” appeared next to a news article highlighting a new initiative by a local police department to train officers on administering Narcan for people suffering from a heroin overdose. The contrast of those two stories says a lot about the impact of the heroin and opioid epidemic on so many young people across our state.

As a physician and public health expert, I look to our state’s mortality data to help tell the story behind young Mainers who are “dying unexpectedly.” According to the new 2015 Shared Community Health Needs Assessment, unintentional injuries are still the leading cause of death among Mainers under age 45, with suicide as the second most common cause of death among those ages 15 to 34 years old.

But Maine’s growing heroin — and fentanyl — epidemic is quickly gaining traction as a contributor to the number of young adults dying unexpectedly. This epidemic has been fueled by a growing dependence on prescribed opioids for the treatment of chronic pain. When prescription opioids are hard to get, people turn to heroin as an alternative. New heroin formulations, cutting heroin with fentanyl, and low-street cost have combined to make the current heroin epidemic more potent, available, affordable and deadly.

As a result, deaths from heroin overdoses in Maine rose from seven in 2010 to 57 in 2014, with another 43 people dying from fentanyl in 2014 as well. So far, overdose deaths in 2015 are following the same trajectory. At the same time, the number of Mainers seeking treatment for addiction more than tripled, from 1,115 in 2010 to 3,463 in 2014.

This deadly scourge has touched every community across our state. And people are worried. Members of the public who participated in stakeholder meetings as part of the 2015 Shared Community Health Needs Assessment ranked “Drug and Alcohol Abuse” as the No. 1 health issue affecting communities across Maine.

Maine people have a long history of coming together to take on tough issues that threaten the health and safety of our communities. Recently, health care providers, public health experts and law enforcement announced a new statewide Anti-Opiate/Heroin Initiative. Under this new effort, these groups are working together with people in recovery and other consumers to create task forces focused on prevention and harm reduction, treatment and law enforcement to reverse this epidemic.

As part of their work, the task forces are planning public forums across the state to share information and hear people’s concerns and ideas about policies and practices that can advance prevention, stem the flow of these deadly drugs into communities and offer treatment and hope to those struggling with addiction and working toward recovery. The Maine Health Access Foundation and the Maine Community Foundation have stepped forward to underwrite these important community dialogues.

These efforts will complement public and private efforts to combat opioid and heroin addiction, such as Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services Prescription Monitoring Program that is designed to help prevent and detect prescription drug misuse and diversion. To help educate and engage providers, Maine Quality Counts has been working with providers from across the state through the Chronic Pain Collaborative to develop evidence-based opioid prescribing protocols and promote alternative therapies to opioids in the management of chronic pain.

Addressing Maine’s growing addiction issue will require a multipronged and sustained approach to be successful. By working together, we may once again make the obituary pages more about celebrating long lives, lived well, instead of outlining the tragedy of young lives cut short by untreated addiction and hopelessness.

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