On February 2, beloved Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman passed away in his home from an apparent drug overdose. He was found lying down, not breathing, and with a syringe in his arm. He left behind a family, including a long-time partner, and three children under the age of 11.
The backdrop of Hoffman’s tragic death and those of other celebrities—like Whitney Houston, Cory Monteith, and Heath Ledger—is a growing epidemic of drug overdose in American culture. Trends of addiction and overdose vacillate between illicit drugs and prescriptions drugs, just as Hoffman’s recent relapse began with prescription drug use and then evolved into the use of heroin.
According to recent statistics, more people die every year from drug overdose than car accidents in the United States, and those numbers climb yearly, with a 102 percent increase from 1999 to 2010 alone. What is further disconcerting are the stories—like Cory Monteith’s, and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s—about people who died from overdose even though they sought help from rehabilitation at various points in their lives.
Hoffman’s history with addiction began over 24 years ago, shortly after he graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. He checked himself into a rehab facility and publicly recounted his story of becoming sober. Abstinence worked for him in fighting his battle with addiction for about two decades, and then all of a sudden, it just didn’t. Therein lies the cruel reality of addiction. Whether one lacks the capacity or interest in stopping drug use, or whether one fights tooth and nail to stop altogether, if the addiction was there to begin with, the addiction will always be there. We need to broaden our toolkit to handle addiction for when rehab and abstinence fail our loved ones and us.
Despite the painful realities about this horrible epidemic and the disconcerting figures about growing rates of overdose deaths, there’s reason to be optimistic. Some good ideas are getting traction in the United States. One of them is a tool: naloxone. The trick is, we just have to get it into more hands.
Naloxone is an easy-to-use and highly effective lifesaving antidote to overdose from heroin or other opioids. A police department of Quincy, Massachusetts, became the first in the country to require each officer to carry naloxone. Its success has been overwhelming. The Quincy Police Department reports that out of 179 attempts to reverse overdoses with naloxone since 2010, 95 percent were successful.
And earlier in 2013, President Obama’s administration endorsed expanding training and access to naloxone among first responders.
In fact, naloxone administration is so straightforward that in an increasing number of states, harm reduction programs, like the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition are offering overdose response training and naloxone to drug users and their families, resulting in more than 10,000 documented reversals.
Americans can help ensure the country builds on the success of naloxone by ensuring it’s part of drug education in schools, and that we advocate for its availability in all places where people use opioid drugs. Anyone who uses or has a friend or family member with a history of using opioid drugs—whether it’s heroin or Oxycontin—should have naloxone within their reach, as with fire extinguishers in the case of fires. We should strongly consider carrying naloxone for our loved ones with histories of addiction, even if they have been dry for decades, just in case.
As a highly successful and deeply venerated artist, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death made headlines across the country. While his adoring fans, close friends, and family grieve for him, and while we reflect on how his death is in fact a symptom of an American epidemic, let’s also consider new ways we can reverse the trend and prevent further overdose deaths.