Ask Lionel: When the Drug Epidemic Hits Home

2018 Columnists Editions Health & Fitness Lionel Shockness Lionel Shockness March

When I first entered the field of mental health in the early 1990s, I worked as an in-patient drug counselor in New York City. I led men’s groups for recovering drug addicts and alcoholics. At the time, crack cocaine was killing people, destroying families and communities, and straining our systems of health, justice and law enforcement.

Drug addiction is so much worse now. In 2016, nearly 64,000 Americans died of drug overdoses, most of them involving prescription painkillers, synthetic opioids or heroin. That’s far more than the number of people who die annually from car crashes in the U.S or from gun violence or from breast cancer. It’s more than the peak number of AIDS deaths in 1995. It’s more than the number of American soldiers who died in the Vietnam War.

The number of fatalities is only part of the tragic story because for each death, there are families and friends left devastated and damaged.

California has not been as hard hit by the opioid epidemic as several other states, but that is cold comfort. There were 4,654 drug overdose deaths in California in 2016, or 11.2 deaths per 100,000 people in the state.

The legacy of the 1990s crack experience is instructive for today. More prisons and stiffer sentences did not help back then and compounded the problem by creating a huge and hugely unjust prison-industrial complex. President Bill Clinton later apologized for those approaches to the problem on his watch.

On the other hand, the experience spurred the growth of a recovery movement. Terms that help to describe and explain addiction and its impacts, such as “recovery,” “family disease,” “co-dependency” – have become mainstream. The toll of drug use on a user’s family members and friends is widely recognized. 

Now, a new generation of hurting Americans must avail themselves of what has been learned about coping with a drug epidemic. One website I recommend where you can find very useful information is “The Friends and Family Treatment Portal” at

I also continue to tell family members affected by a loved one’s drinking or drug use to attend meetings, such as Al-Anon, Alateen or Nar-Anon. I recently came across a series of short documentaries available online, entitled “Finding a Fix: A Mother Jones Documentary Series,” that shows how complex the problem is.

Stay informed. Ask for help. Be part of the recovery.

Lionel Shockness is a psychotherapist. If you would like to submit a question for Lionel to answer in this column, please write to

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