The Overdose Crisis

By Gretchen Burns Bergman


Overdose: There is nothing more tragic than young lives being lost unnecessarily before they have a chance to reach their full potential. The grief experienced by parents and family members left behind is heightened by the sense of frustration and even rage, that this loss could have been prevented. Yet, many don’t talk about accidental fatal overdose because of shame and stigma.

August 31 is International Overdose Awareness Day… a day to acknowledge individual loss and family grief when loved ones have suffered overdose. This day of awareness was started in Australia by members of the Salvation Army and Community Health Development programs in 2000, and is acknowledged worldwide today.

California has the highest number of overdose deaths in the country. According to the Centers for Disease Control, drug overdose now ranks as a leading cause of accidental death in the United States, second only to motor-vehicle accidents. It is the leading cause of death among people who use drugs around the world. These numbers are rising due to prescription opioid drugs.

I am the mother of two sons who have addictive illness. My older son is in long term recovery and works as a drug and alcohol counselor. In his profession he helps people to find recovery and live meaningful lives. His story could have had a darker ending. Many years ago he was left unconscious after partying with his friends. Thankfully, a Good Samaritan took him to the emergency room and called me. I waited for hours in the middle of the night not knowing if he would live or die. My younger son has been in a position to save the lives of his drug using friends several times, with the use of naloxone. Worry is my constant companion.

I wonder how many of our sons and daughters have survived an overdose, and we don’t know it, or realize how lucky we are that they still have futures to look forward to. Parents of drug users have panic attacks, not because they are co-dependent, but because they know their offspring are in real danger. Remember the saying, “Do you know where your children are?” warning us to keep close watch on our kids to keep them safe. This haunts us even when our child becomes an adult, when we understand that addiction is a life-threatening disease.

I have several friends who have lost a child needlessly to overdose. After her son Jeff died of an accidental overdose, Denise Cullen started helping others suffering from what she calls this “unique, stigmatized and isolating grief.”

There are solutions that can save lives, like Good Samaritan policies that provide limited criminal immunity for both the witness and the victim of an overdose. Unfortunately witnesses of an overdose often don’t call 911 out of fear of arrest for associated drug use. We now have a 911 Good Samaritan law in California. Naloxone, a non-narcotic drug that reverses overdoses could be made more available. We must adopt strategies that will keep people with drug problems alive for the cure.

A New PATH (Parents for Addiction Treatment & Healing) holds a candlelight vigil each year on August 31,which is International Overdose Awareness Day, to honor individuals who have lost their lives to overdose. Gretchen Burns Bergman is Co-Founder of A New PATH & Lead organizer of Moms United to End the War on Drugs national campaign.