August 31, 2022, is International Overdose Awareness Day, and we pause to honor those who have died from an overdose and to reflect on the grief of those they left behind. Many continue to live with the stigma associated with having a close family or friend die from an overdose.
Overdose is the leading cause of death for people ages 18 to 45 in America today. More than 100,000 people died of an overdose in the United States in the 12-month period ending in March 2022. 1 Many of us know one of the 100,000, some of us know more than one, and some of us may know dozens. Among this group are our children, siblings, parents, grandparents, cousins, non-blood relatives, and friends. For many, the observance on August 31 might be the first and only time to share their grief without stigma. International Overdose Awareness Day brings attention to issues surrounding substance use disorders (SUDs) and overdose deaths and allows people to grieve as they choose without fear of stigmatization.
An analysis of overdose deaths from 2019 to 2020 found that:2
- Drug overdose deaths increased about 30 percent in the United States from 2019 to 2020.
- The COVID-19 pandemic and disruption in access to prevention, treatment, harm reduction and recovery services likely contributed to this increase.
- Recent increases have been largely driven by illicitly manufactured fentanyl and altered forms of fentanyl.
- Counties with greater income inequality (a large income gap between rich and poor) had higher rates of overdose deaths.
- Overdose rates increased by 44 percent for black people and 39 percent for American Indian and Alaska Natives.
- Most people who died from an overdose had no evidence of substance use treatment before their deaths.
- Evidence of previous documented treatment was lower among people from racial and ethnic minority groups, compared with white people.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) advance primary prevention, harm reduction, evidence-based treatment, recovery support programs and policies, and provide training and technical assistance in line with the HHS Overdose Prevention Strategy. Specifically, SAMHSA:
- Promotes primary prevention efforts by supporting states and communities in developing comprehensive prevention programs to educate the public about the dangers of sharing medications; raise awareness among pharmaceutical and medical communities on the risks of overprescribing; and implement overdose death prevention strategies, such as naloxone distribution.
- Supports the work of harm reductionists, who have prevented overdose fatalities through community-based overdose prevention programs since the mid-1990s. This work considers the major factors influencing overdose risk, like mental health, trauma, and social determinants of health.
- Published an Opioid Overdose Prevention Toolkit that provides:
- Safety advice for patients and families.
- Information for prescribers.
- Essential steps for first responders.
- Resources for those recovering from opioid overdose.
- Supports peer workers, who know firsthand of the complex challenges facing people with mental health and SUDs.
SAMHSA’s work on overdose awareness is far from over. Our commitment remains strong in support of public education and engagement on overdose awareness and prevention.
On International Overdose Awareness Day, let’s take the time to remember the ones we’ve lost, and the loved ones left behind, and to recognize the people on the ground who are doing the critical work to help prevent more overdose fatalities.
It’s a time to remember. It’s a time to act.
1Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. National Vital Statistics System, Provisional Drug Overdose Death Counts. Ahmad FB, Cisewski JA, Rossen LM, Sutton P. Provisional drug overdose death counts. National Center for Health Statistics. 2022. Accessed at https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/vsrr/drug-overdose-data.htm on Aug. 19, 2022
2Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Kariisa M, Davis NL, Kumar S, et al. Vital Signs: Drug Overdose Deaths, by Selected Sociodemographic and Social Determinants of Health Characteristics — 25 States and the District of Columbia, 2019–2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2022;71:940–947. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm7129e2. Accessed at www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/overdose-death-disparities/index.html on Aug. 12, 2022