During the March 1st White House summit on opioids, both Donald and Melania Trump spoke about the ongoing crisis— but there was also a surprise speaker. Former Fox News anchor Eric Bolling appeared to discuss his son’s fatal overdose during his sophomore year at the University of Colorado. Some six months after the event, Eric Bolling’s voice cracked as he described his successful, “outgoing” son’s death due to street-bought Xanax laced with fentanyl, which is the same drug that killed Prince, Tom Petty, and Michael Jackson. The grieving father repeatedly talked about his overwhelming shock at what happened and the lack of warning signs. He also discussed what he calls “not-my-kid syndrome”, the sometimes-fatal belief that parents have that their child could never be associated with hard drugs like opioids.
Although the President is attempting to help the country have a more productive conversation around use of these very dangerous drugs, stigma continues to be a tragically dangerous factor. When they heard that their son was dead, a devastated Eric Bolling and his wife went through a range of emotions, including wondering what family and friends were going to think. By revealing this, Bolling himself points out that he has been affected by the deep and persistent shame that our society feels around opioids and overdose victims. Eric Bolling’s candid, emotional testimony was a clear effort to help bring attention to the fact that this tragedy is affecting every strata of society, and that stigma and “not-my-kid syndrome” could be costing families their children.
Another strikingly personal story was shared by the US Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams. Dr. Adams talked about how his own family has suffered negative “emotional, medical, and financial” effects due to addiction; his younger brother is in prison because of crimes committed to support substance abuse. Adams expressed hope that in sharing his story, other Americans would realize that addiction can happen to anyone, and that those struggling are not alone.
All of the speakers who shared personal stories did so to fight the stubbornly persistent shame around addiction and moral judgements against addicts in American society. Statistically speaking, most people probably know someone who has been affected by opioid addiction. The White House speakers expressed the hope that normalizing discussions about addiction can help more people ask for help before the situation turns deadly, a position supported by multiple research studies.
The White House summit that Eric Bolling spoke at was held to reassure the public that efforts are being made to address the crisis since Trump’s declaration of a “Public Health Disaster” in 2017. At that time, the President assembled a new team to head the government’s public health response. The scale of the problem remains a critical issue. Out of more than 63,000 overdose deaths in 2016, some 42,000 involved opiates. The latest numbers available indicate that some 115 Americans are still dying every day from overdoses involving an opiate. On the positive side, the number of prescriptions for opiates peaked in 2012-13. Painkiller prescriptions are an important risk factor for becoming addicted to heroin and other related illicit drugs, so this is expected to eventually help lower the number of addicts and overdoses; however, epidemiologists are not sure if the number of overdose deaths has peaked yet. Preliminary data from Massachusetts is encouraging, but numbers are expected to drop due to policy changes from the local to Federal levels having increased significantly since 2016. The Presidential task force is the most visible example of this increased urgency, and new measures announced at the White House are certainly promising.
At the summit, cabinet secretaries from several different departments spoke about new funding and legal measures. When the opioid emergency was first declared in 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced stricter monitoring of prescriptions and more funding for anti-drug law enforcement, and the government is exploring bringing lawsuits against certain prescription drug manufacturers for misleading marketing. The President himself suggested that penalties for dealing or distributing illicit drugs should be dramatically increased. Alex Azar, the Director of Health and Human Services, outlined how the federal government is helping local treatment centers get easier access to funding for detox and rehabilitation facilities, including $500 million in targeted grants for state governments. He also stated that the goal of his department was to treat addiction as a medical problem, not a moral failure. This attitude is generally accepted by addiction specialists as more realistic and productive, while also reducing stigma and blame.
The actions discussed at the March 1st White House panel on the opioid crisis demonstrate a government that is finally responding to the seriousness of the epidemic on multiple levels. The approach mentioned by Secretary Azar—of addiction being something that can happen to anyone, and something that needs to be discussed freely to help family and friends spot problems early—is perhaps one of the most promising signs yet that the US government is finally addressing this crisis effectively. Starting with Eric Bolling’s heartbreaking testimony and concluding with the stated attitude of various public-health related policy makers, a crucial shift in attitudes toward addiction combined with an increase in outreach and treatment is a step in the right direction. The de-stigmatization in Americans’ view toward opioid users, especially, may be the missing factor that America needs to face down this devastating opioid epidemic.
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