Where did the opioid crisis go?

The stigma causes a lack of coverage

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Where did the opioid crisis go?

(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Daily Collegian)

(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Daily Collegian)

(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Daily Collegian)

(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Daily Collegian)

By Nicole Biagioni, Collegian Columnist

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Last Wednesday, I got a text from my mom saying someone from my hometown, Littleton, Mass., had overdosed. I talked to a sergeant from the Littleton Police Department, and he said this overdose was from heroin with a possible mixture of fentanyl. The resident who overdosed was extremely young. This hit home. Nothing happens in my town. Something like an overdose should turn the town upside down, but there was nothing– no news from the local paper or any news outlets within the past few day.

In a town like Littleton or Amherst, the idea of drugs like heroin or fentanyl being present in seems like fiction. But the sergeant said, “any town has a drug problem.” Townies are mostly not going to hear about the drug overdoses in town because of the stigma of keeping it a secret. In small towns, everybody knows everybody else’s business, but this is the one thing that no one knows about. Having someone in your family who has a drug addiction is perceived as an embarrassment, so people don’t want that news to spread.

“Most residents in town don’t know about the problem, and live in a bubble, when it comes to stuff like this,” said the sergeant. He continued, “[there’s] your reality and the reality.”

But looking on a larger scale of opioid addiction, it is one that affects everybody, not just a few people. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “more than 130 people in the United States die [a day] after overdosing on opioids.” According to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, seven people died from opioid overdoses in Amherst from 2013 to 2017. Seven people may seem small compared to 421 overdoses in Worcester, Mass. during the past four years, but those numbers still count people. Maybe the crisis doesn’t affect Massachusetts as directly as it might affect Ohio, so that may be a reason for a lack of conversation. But both Ohio and Massachusetts are ranked in the top 10 for highest rates in opioid-related deaths.

If something is labeled as a crisis, shouldn’t there be a crisis-like reaction, or has it just become old news? In this case, there was a crisis-like reaction in 2017, but now it has become dated. Frankly, there’s nothing salacious or shocking from the opioid crisis that would get views today. News outlets are looking for stories that are going to sell and make the most money, and the opioid crisis isn’t that story. Unless some celebrity overdoses like Heath Ledger, Cody Monteith or Prince because of heroin, oxycodone or fentanyl, there is going to be no breaking news about the crisis.

Maybe the opioid crisis has become a classic case of desensitization. When we see something on any media platform that is new to us and may contain or graphic content, we are shocked and pay closer attention to it. But once we have seen the graphic content over and over again, our brains get used to this notion and we become numb to the subject as a whole. If society is desensitized to a subject like the opioid crisis, then they are more likely not to care about it. Even the sergeant himself said in a way, he too was desensitized to the overdoses in town. He said that at first, police officers arriving on the scene of an overdose were shocked, but now their reaction is, “Oh, yup, another one.”

To try to understand how the opioid crisis is not in the news, I looked into communication theory of the media. The relevant theory is agenda setting, where the media directs public focus based on an agenda influenced by politicians and the government. For instance, the media focuses immigration or Medicare because those are the big talking points that will make news outlets the most money. Sometimes this agenda setting gets sidetracked, like with the potential avocado shortage, which is related to the agenda item of immigration. Yes, if President Donald Trump were to close the border, the United States would run out of avocados in three weeks, and yes, it would have an impact on supermarkets. But the focus on avocados as if it were a crisis just boggles my mind. Let’s be real here: are we going to focus our attention on an avocado shortage for someone’s morning toast spread, or the massive amount of Americans addicted to opioids? But the opioid crisis is something that isn’t on the agenda right now.

So, if there is a lack of awareness reflected in media coverage, we need to bring more awareness to it ourselves. If we keep pushing the crisis aside and saving it for a rainy day, like we did with immigration in past years, it will become a massive issue that is out of control. We need to understand and admit that there is a problem, not ignore it and hope it goes away. I see that we have a long road ahead, but we need to start by addressing addiction and being public about this crisis.

 Editor’s Note: The sergeant from the Littleton Police Department wished to be anonymous for this article.

Nicole Biagioni is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]