Every day, we get the latest on the coronavirus pandemic. How many people tested positive, and how many have died. The number rolls higher and higher as our political leaders struggle to find a way to slow its spread.
But there’s another epidemic that has swept across the U.S. over the past decade: opioids.
Call it the quiet epidemic.
While newspapers and other media have reported on its impact on urban America, reporting on rural counterparts has often been missing.
Yet between 2008 and 2017, nearly 274,000 Americans died from opioids in the rural United States. In the rural Pacific Northwest, 1,347 have died.
Nationwide, a survey found that 3 in every 4 farmers and farmworkers have been directly impacted by opioid abuse. Even worse, the same ratio reports that it is easy to access large amounts of opioids without a prescription — but only one-third say it is easy to obtain addiction treatment.
Those are stunning statistics, yet few are willing to talk about it.
In much of rural America, the stigma of a drug overdose creates a bubble of silence around the victim, the family and the community.
To address a problem, we first need to talk about it.
That was the realization leaders of the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Farmers Union came to. Those two organizations rarely find themselves on the same side of a political issue, but when it comes to the matter of saving rural lives from opioids, they speak as one.
Together, they launched “Farm Town Strong,” a campaign aimed at breaking the silence. Their website, farmtownstrong.org, offers help to families and others who are impacted by opioids.
The tendency is to think about opioids in terms of teens and young adults experimenting with illicit drugs such as fentanyl, but there’s more to the story.
It is common for people who do hard physical labor to be injured. When that happens, doctors prescribe pain relievers, many that have an opioid as an ingredient. If the injury persists, so does the prescription, until the patient is hooked.
From there, the patient can become trapped in a downward spiral. Without help, he, or she, is doomed.
Opioids are not the only drugs threatening rural America. Methamphetamines continue to pose a huge problem. Other addictive substances, including alcohol, add to the potential for rural Americans to become caught up in a web of problems.
Farmers and ranchers tend to be independent thinkers. They are also self-reliant, an asset in the world of agriculture.
But sometimes a problem arises that can overwhelm even the most independent person or family. When that happens, it’s OK to talk about it with a neighbor, or a friend, or a counselor.
It’s OK to seek help.