Enough Is Enough, We Need To Treat Opioid Addiction As A Mental Health Crisis

Elvert Barnes

Several years ago I was assigned to the Detective Bureau and was called out to a scene where a mother had woken up that morning and found her daughter collapsed on the floor right inside the door to the apartment they shared.  When she saw her lying there that morning she had tried to shake her 17-year-old pride and joy awake, but soon realized that her efforts were in vain.  The mother frantically called 911 and within minutes police officers and the paramedics had arrived, unfortunately, they were several hours too late.  When the mother was told that her daughter had passed, the confusion was great and questions were many.  There was no gunshot, no stab wounds, no blood, nothing.  What could have caused her seemingly healthy 17-year-old girl to be taken away from her?

I have seen a great deal of things, over my years as an officer, which I wish I was able to erase from my mind.   What I saw when I walked into the door of her home was something that will stick with me forever.  A mother sobbing over the lifeless body of her beautiful 17-year-old daughter, asking God over and over again why, just why did he have to take her.   Police Officers deal with scenes like this on a near daily basis, but perhaps because I had a daughter of the same age at home this case really bothered me like no other.   I didn’t know this family and had never met either the mother or the girl in my duties as an officer or in my life outside work.  However, maybe because her blonde hair reminded me of my daughters or because they had similar features, I still can’t think about this case without having all of those initial emotions well up.

The mother and her daughter lived in a very nice apartment and seemed to be enjoying all life had to offer.  Her mother explained that she was a good student, was involved in several school activities, had a part time job, no medical issues, and many friends.  She explained that her daughter had gone out the night before and that she was supposed to be back by her midnight curfew, which she never broke.  She told me that she was scheduled to work that morning so she had gone to sleep before her daughter arrived back home, and had awoken to get ready and found her daughter on the floor.

She found her only child lying right inside the door to their apartment, with her coat still on.  She explained that she tried and tried to get her to wake up, and immediately called 911 when she wouldn’t respond.  She had no idea, no idea what had happened or why her daughter was dead.  I explained to her that this was why I was there and that I would work my hardest to find out what had happened.  For reasons at that time unknown, this case meant more to me than the usual case I was assigned.

A seemingly healthy 17-year-old girl, with no signs of injury normally doesn’t just collapse and die, so my first suspicion was a drug overdose.  I had asked her mother if she knew of any drug use by her daughter and was told that she had caught her smoking marijuana with a friend a few months ago and that she had just gotten off being grounded for that incident.  She added that she didn’t allow drugs or even alcohol, for that matter, into her house. I asked if I could search her room and cell phone to see if I could get any leads for my investigation.  Of course, she gave me permission and while I found nothing that would indicate drug use, in her room, her cell phone provided a different story.

I won’t go into the entire investigation, but will rather give a short synopsis of what I discovered through my investigation.  She had gone out the night before with two brothers who she had recently become close friends with.  They drove to a big city, where the brothers had connections, and purchased heroin.  All three had snorted the heroin, subsequently overdosed, and were found by police officers who were called there by a concerned citizen who saw them and thought they were all dead.  They were transported to the hospital and treated with Naloxone to help reverse the overdose.  Once they were alert, they realized the trouble they may be in and all three left the hospital immediately.  They then drove over an hour back to our town and dropped the girl off at her house.  They told me that once they arrived at their house she got out of the car, walked inside her door, and that this was the last time they saw her.  Security cameras, cell phone records, toxicology reports, and witness accounts showed that it had happened exactly like they told me. 

The brothers explained to me that they all three of them had been using heroin together for the last few months and that they were all struggling with their addiction.  They had gone to the big city because they heard the product there was better than what they could get locally and they needed their fix.  They didn’t seem too upset about the events of that night and when questioned said that they had seen several of their friends die because of their addiction.  They explained their situation like it was just a normal part of life to see your friends and family overdose and die.  The truly sad part is, to them it had already become normal.  When asked about getting into a treatment program the both said that it was no use.  They had only been addicted for a couple of months and had already given up hope of ever living a sober lifestyle. By the next spring, both of these boys were dead from overdoses.

Nationwide many people continue to struggle with addiction to heroin and other opioid-based narcotics.  As overdoses and deaths continue to rise we can look to place blame in a great many places.  Blame the addicts for even choosing to do drugs, blame the doctors for overprescribing opioid based pain killers, blame the police for not making more arrests, blame big pharma for pushing doctors to use these drugs.  Blame, blame, blame.   Merely looking to place blame isn’t going to do anything to help solve the problem and there is a problem, a big one.

I am of the opinion, and, as a law enforcement officer, am in a great minority, that everyone needs to realize that addiction is a mental health issue and needs to be treated as the same.  It does us absolutely no good to arrest an addict, throw them in jail for a couple of months, offer them limited services while incarcerated, and they release them right into the situation they were in when they got arrested.  How in the world is this setting an addict up for success?  It isn’t and this is part of the reason why the vast majorities of these people relapse and reoffend.  It is a vicious cycle that they feel that they cannot escape from.  They are trapped in a system that treats their addiction as criminal instead of as a medical issue. 

Listen, I have spoken with many addicts and have yet to talk with one who wants to be addicted to heroin.  They know that they are taking the chance of dying every time they put that needle in, but they cannot help it.  One girl told me at first she did use to get high, but that now she has to use just to feel normal.  She said that she spends around $300 a day just so that she can function.  She doesn’t get the rush she used to and now needs the drugs just to get out of bed.  She explained that the physical and mental pain from not having her hit is so great that she would be anything to get it and has.  She told me that she has sold drugs to her friends in the past as well as sold herself to get the money she needed for heroin.  She wasn’t proud of the fact but was so defeated by life that she says it very matter-of-factly.  She explained to me that every minute of her life is now devoted to either taking the steps to get heroin or using heroin.  It controls every single thing she does and has taken everything from her. 

I could go on and on with stories that addicts have shared with me, but they are all nearly the same.  Once they started using they couldn’t stop and would do nearly anything to get their drugs.   The power of this addiction is so great that people will put everything else behind the need to get their drug.  So how can we not be treating this as a mental health issue?  Addiction starts in the brain, no matter the addiction.  Food, alcohol, sex, money, gambling, drugs, all give your brain some sort of pleasure and once it stops it begins to want that pleasure again.  Sometimes the pleasure is so great that your brain tells you that you want more and more and more until you cannot stop yourself.  If food wasn’t addictive would we be facing the obesity issues we have in this country?  How many fortunes have we heard about being gambled away because of an addiction?  The list goes on and on.

Alcoholism used to be considered a weakness or a character flaw until society came around and realized that it was a treatable disease.  However, drug addicts face a stigma in society that isn’t quite fair.  Yes, they probably made some poor choices along the way, but should that be a life sentence?  Should we just lock up everyone who makes choices we don’t agree with or understand?  We couldn’t build enough prisons to do that, let alone have enough people left over to guard them after we did.  The smartest solution would be to help these people get well.

Communities need to come together to find a solution that works for them to help get these people well.  We need to understand that this isn’t just a police problem, it is a community problem and that it will take the entire community to begin to solve it.  Opposed to what some people think, we cannot simply arrest our way out this.  We need police departments, courts, treatment centers, jails, hospitals, schools, and citizens to work in concert to help get a grasp on this issue before any more lives are lost.  A lot of communities have come up with some very innovative strategies to address these problems and some are showing a lot of success.  The key to all of them is that everyone is working together and are addressing opioid addiction as a mental health issue. 

Communities need to work on prevention, treatment, and enforcement, in that order.  If we are able to prevent people from ever using drugs, this obviously helps out the other two areas.  Everyone agrees on the first one, but the second and third are the ones that sometimes get me strange looks.  If we focus on treatment, before enforcement, then I believe we will see much more success.  Keeping someone out of the criminal justice system is a win/win situation.  The reasons are many so trust me on this one, otherwise, I could go on and on for hours.  Treating a person’s addiction and getting them back into society as a productive citizen should be the number one goal of any program or treatment effort.  This cannot be accomplished by putting an addict into an 8 by 8 cell and having them sit there 23 hours a day.

Don’t get me wrong we certainly have people who deserve to be arrested and thrown in jail, but I don’t believe that an addict, arrested for possession or using, is best served being put in jail.  All of our efforts should be focused on finding, arresting, and putting in prison, the dealers who are pushing this crap into our communities.  These are the people that are ruining countless lives while in chase of the almighty dollar.  If we want to truly make a difference, this is where we need to start.  If we start using models similar to this I think that we will see much more success than we are currently seeing.  We have tried the old and worn out methods for many years, and what didn’t work then still doesn’t work today. 

These aren’t always popular opinions, especially in law enforcement agencies, but we really need to look at how we have attacked these problems in the past.  A lot of them haven’t worked at all and the ones that have worked haven’t worked well.  We need to find new methods to address these problems, and getting people to realize that addiction is a mental health issue is a great start.  Once we start treating the disease we can look to a future where things are better for everyone.  It may get worse before it gets better, but it will get better.  It always does. TC mark

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