Following his prepared remarks at Health Journalism 2016, United States Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, M.D., M.B.A., (@) answered some questions from journalists about opioids, alcohol, marijuana, mental health, gun violence, the relationship between science and public policy, and more.
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has launched a campaign to address an epidemic of opioid addiction that holds two million Americans in its grip. His drive not only focuses upon getting people who are already addicted into treatment, but upon preventing new cases of addiction by appealing to health care professionals – including the nation’s dentists – to consider alternatives when helping patients manage pain.
Addiction can begin with a routine prescription, Murthy has stressed.
New America Media’s Jacob Simas and Two Rivers Tribune‘s Allie Hostler joined forces to examine how the nation’s rural methamphetamine epidemic has devastated the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation in Northern California, as well as the nation’s American Indian population in general. The Indian Health Service does not track drug abuse, and hard tribe-by-tribe numbers are hard to come by, but the scope of the problem is clear.
Meth abuse rates have reached 30 percent on some rural Indian reservations, and in some Indian communities as many as 65 percent of all documented cases involving child neglect and placement of children in foster care can be traced back to parental involvement with methamphetamine. California Indian Legal Services estimates that in nearly every case they oversee that involves a child being removed from their home, one or both of the parents is using meth. Often in those cases, the baby itself was born with prenatal exposure to the drug.
The broken economy in Hoopa and resulting poverty – the annual household income on the reservation hovers around $13,000 and most families receive tribal government assistance – would seem adequate to explain away the high rates of substance abuse. But those in the community with a sense of history say it’s much more complicated.
Melodie George-Moore teaches English and Native American literature at Hoopa High School. She’s also a leader of traditional Hoopa ceremonies. She believes Hoopa’s drug problem has its roots in historical trauma.
The reservation’s rampant substance abuse has its roots in what the duo calls Hoopa’s “broken economy,” as well as the “historical trauma” unique to conquered native populations. But whatever the cause, the meth epidemic’s public health impact is far-reaching and long-running.
“People who were using during a different time of their life – some might even be in leadership roles in the community – that exposure is now manifesting itself as a very serious disease, because of speed use 30 to 40 years earlier,” she said. “There are young people lining up on dialysis, fetal exposure issues, developmental and behavioral issues… There are days when it’s absolutely overwhelming, some of the realities we see here, the physiological and social realities.”
The second installment in the series focuses on efforts to solve the problem, which include grassroots movements and sweat lodges, as well as a thoroughly overwhelmed infrastructure.
The Tribe’s court estimates that alcohol or substance abuse is a factor in approximately 65 to 70 percent of eviction cases heard by the court, and 75 to 80 percent of child custody and divorce cases. In 2010 the court reported that alcohol or substance abuse was a significant factor in 80 percent of the child abuse and neglect cases heard on the reservation.
The articles were produced as a project for The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, a program of USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.
AHCJ member Michael Berens and Ken Armstrong, reporters at The Seattle Times, received the 2012 Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting for a three-part series called “Methadone and the Politics of Pain.”
The University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism awards the $35,000 prize every year for investigative coverage.
Judges congratulated Berens and Armstrong for their “thorough and groundbreaking reporting on how more than 2,000 people in Washington state have fatally overdosed on the painkiller methadone.”
Following publication, state officials issued warnings against methadone’s use as a pain management drug and indicated for the first time that it should be used only as a last resort.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune has launched an investigation into synthetic “designer” drugs, finding that they are easy to buy, their legality is murky at best and that often buyers don’t receive the drugs they think they’ve ordered.
An introduction by Star Tribune editor Nancy Barnes says it is “striking” how much “trust buyers put in the notion that it is safe to acquire a synthetic drug over the Internet, from an unproven source.”
In the first installment of the series, reporter Pam Louwagie tells the story of a tragic party in tiny Konawa, Okla., where a college student allegedly ordered a drug over the Internet and, according to court documents, distributed it to party attendees. What he actually received was a different chemical that sickened a number of people and, prosecutors say, led to the death of a 22-year-old.
The story also lists cases in which people using synthetic drugs, such as “bath salts” and “synthetic marijuana,” have been sickened, committed suicide and killed family members.