When Cold Numbers Become Heartbreak – The Dizzying Increase of Overdose Deaths in Indiana and Nationwide
As evidence gathers that mega pop star Prince died from an overdose of opiate prescription drugs, we as a state and a country have an opportunity to examine the epidemic of identical tragedies happening right here in our own communities. Even as we grieve from afar for a beloved pop icon, we can bow our heads and mourn more locally, for the victims and families struck every day by drug overdoses. These are families that we know, families across town or right next door, and their numbers are staggering.
As a state, Indiana reflects a nationwide trend in deaths by drug overdose. According to The Center for Disease Control Website (CDC), 28,000 people died from opiate drug overdoses in 2014. This does not include death from other drugs, but these numbers are substantial as well. 28,000 Americans died from overdoses on prescription opiates and heroin two years ago. This is the highest number ever reported, and it shows no signs of slowing down. And unfortunately, 2014 was not an anomaly; it was simply part of a longer trend.
Expanding our scope to include the last fifteen years, the numbers become more jaw dropping. Since 2000, the death rate by overdose has quadrupled. Yes, you read that right. In fifteen years, overdose deaths have quadrupled. And the total number of deaths since 2000? According to the CDC, it's almost 500,000. Consider that a moment – nearly half a million Americans have died from drug overdoses in the last fifteen years. That's more than have died from car accidents during the period. And that number doesn't even touch the bereaved family members, which certainly climbs into the millions and millions.
A few other remarks will accent what is clearly a national epidemic. The majority of overdose victims in the United States are middle aged. They are usually people who begin to take opiates because of legitimate medical problems. Eventually however, their use of prescription painkillers becomes drug abuse. Many of them end up obtaining heroin from off the street, because it's actually cheaper and easier to get than prescription drugs. Historically, opiate deaths happen more to men than women. But the mortality gap has been shrinking alarmingly for several years. Women are becoming more and more likely to die from drug overdose. The overdose epidemic does not discriminate.
Bringing the overdose epidemic closer to home, we see a similar explosion of death rates in Indiana. These numbers are from the Indiana State Department of Health Website (ISDH). Along with 36 other states nationwide, drug overdose is the leading cause of injury death in Indiana. In the period from 2011-2013, Indiana ranked 15th highest in overdose deaths. This is a jump of five places since the period 2007-2009, when we ranked 20th. We will address prescription drug abuse more closely in a future post, but according to the CDC, Indiana is ranked 9th in total prescriptions written for opiate painkillers. This is more than enough prescriptions for every Hoosier in the state to have a bottle of opiate painkillers laying around the house.
And the number don't stop there. Since 1999, the number of overdose deaths in Indiana has increased from 184 to 1,152. This is nothing less than horrifying. These numbers represent a 500% jump in our rate of overdose deaths. It is difficult even to conceive of that, much less consider the devastating amount of grief for the families affected. And if we shrink the scope to the period between 2010-2014, the increase is perhaps even more glaring. Here, in a five year period, deaths jump from 923 in 2010 to 1,152 in 2014. This is 229 more deaths in 2014 than in 2010, a mind boggling increase of 24%. There is little we can add to these numbers to express the depth of the problem, except to say that the numbers here in Indiana far outpace the national average. And the national average is devastating, as we've already seen. What does this say about conditions here in Indiana?
It is impossible to exaggerate the depth of our state's overdose problem. The actual numbers themselves seem like exaggerations, but sadly they are not. They are quite real, even if they don't even skim the surface of the real life grief involved. This is not a Chicken Little scenario, not by a long shot. In a very meaningful way, the sky is indeed falling for many Indiana families. How much more of it must come down around our ears for us to act, for us to begin the difficult self examination necessary to curb the explosion of death? Time will tell if our hearts catch up with the numbers.