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Confronting the Opioid Crisis

(From left) Journalist and IWF member Andrea Roane moderates a town hall-style session on the opioid crisis, featuring panelists and IWF members Marylou Sudders, Megan Barry and Katherine Fernandez Rundle.

In the fall of 2018, the IWF World Leadership Conference in Miami drew nearly 1,000 women leaders from over 30 nations to discuss topics ranging from the future of the global economy, women in politics, rising seas, and an increasingly deadly crisis: the opioid epidemic.

During the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s National Prevention Week (May 12-18), we want to draw from the content and conversations we had in Miami to bring attention to the opioid epidemic today, and what we can do to increase public awareness of, and action around mental and substance use disorders.

Estimates show that more than 2.5 million people struggle with opioid addiction in the United States. According to the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention, the number of overdose deaths jumped 10 percent from 2016 to 2017, topping 70,000. That is about 200 people a day – or a plane crash every day of the year. In a 2018 report from health research institute Altarum, over the last 16 years the economic cost of the epidemic has reached $1 trillion, and it will cost another $500 billion between now and 2020. It touches the lives of every American indiscriminately, and governments, businesses, nonprofits and individuals are taking note and stepping up. Today, this is largely a North American problem, but there are lessons for all, no matter where we live.

In Miami last year, three IWF members on the frontlines of this battle and committed to reversing the trend addressed conference attendees in a town hall session titled “IWF in Action: Confronting the Opioid Crisis.” Our panelists included Marylou Sudders, Secretary of Health and Human Services for the State of Massachusetts and member of IWF Massachusetts; Megan Barry, former Mayor of Nashville, advocate for addiction awareness in honor of her late son, and member of the Tennessee Women’s Forum; and Kathy Fernandez Rundle, Miami-Dade State Attorney, co-creator of the Miami-Dade County Opioid Addiction Task Force and member of IWF Florida. The discussion was moderated by Andrea Roane, former anchor and medical reporter for Washington D.C.’s WUSA 9, and member of IWF Washington, D.C.

Recently released research shows that in some parts of the country, the number of U.S. drug overdose deaths has finally started to level off. This gives us hope, but the fight isn’t over.

Three ways women everywhere can act to combat this epidemic include:

1. Treat opioid addiction as an illness and remove the stigma

"I believe we can overcome [the opioid epidemic] and we will overcome this if we put our minds to it, and are determined to do it." - Kathy Fernandez Rundle

People who struggle with an addiction to opioid painkillers suffer from a substance abuse disorder. Addiction is an illness that requires treatment, and we must remove the stigma. For many, the journey toward addiction starts innocently, with a prescription for pain after an operation. Rather than treat them like criminals, we must recognize that those suffering from addiction need help and support overcoming a serious illness. We can help people take the first step toward recovery by increasing awareness of addiction as a disorder, creating a safe space to seek help, and providing accessible treatment without judgement.

2. Support legislature at the state and local level

"We need to persist, have hope and disrupt the status quo because the status quo has not worked well for the treatment for addiction in this country."– Marylou Sudders

Massachusetts is one of the few places where the number of overdose deaths is decreasing, illustrating that states can be incubators for best practices fighting both the causes and symptoms of addiction. Through its Opioid Addiction Working Group, Massachusetts has added more treatment beds for opioid addicts, seen a 30-percent decline in opioid prescriptions in the past two years, and is increasing awareness by launching a public health campaign. Last summer, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker signed a bill into law that would increase access to an important tool to fight addiction: Narcan, the anti-overdose drug.

Other states are following Massachusetts’ lead and exploring new avenues for addressing this epidemic within their own borders. Each state is different, but the mission is the same: take care of your citizens.

3. Intercede in your own medicine cabinet

The counterweight to grief is community, but the counterweight to the epidemic is also community. There are so many pieces of this. We have to get it right and it is all hands on deck, because I am just 1 of the 72,000 stories from last year. What I don’t want is for one of you to be the next. - Megan Barry

Around 70 percent of addiction journeys begin in the home medicine cabinet. Thankfully, there are three steps everyone can take to manage the medication supply in their own homes and minimize the risk of inappropriate use or diversion.

  1. Count your drugs – so you can spot if any of them go missing.
  2. Lock your drugs – keep them in a secure spot where only the prescribed user can access them.
  3. Drop your drugs – if you no longer need them, drop any remaining medication at a drug store or with your local law enforcement.

Today’s opioid epidemic continues to demand attention from governments, nonprofits, businesses and individuals. As a global network of women leaders from diverse professions and perspectives, IWF is committed to educating and inspiring today’s leadership to overcome this challenge.

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Confronting the Opioid Crisis
Confronting the Opioid Crisis
International Women's Forum