When my son Christian died, we told everyone the cause of death was an enlarged heart. The truth is he died of his addiction to drugs. His battle with addiction started at age 14. He struggled for years, and then he was gone by 40.
I make it sound so straightforward and simple. It wasn’t, but there is a simple fact hiding here: He needed help, I couldn’t provide it, he died.
No one should ever have to live with this terrible truth. No parent should ever have to bury a child.
Here’s what’s really scary though: I’m not alone. Not by a long shot. One hundred and seventy-five Americans die from drug overdoses daily — including 15 kids a day. That’s a Parkland every day!
That’s stunning enough, but it gets worse. The number of people dying of drug overdoses has nearly doubled in the past decade. It’s happening to war heroes, first responders, and sweet, sensitive kids like Chris. If we continue at this pace, people predict that half a million lives will be lost in the next decade. One million American parents will be getting that dreaded phone call in the middle of the night.
Why aren’t we treating this like the relentless series of catastrophes that it is? If 175 people died in a plane crash every day, and the government didn’t figure out how to fix it, people would be marching in the streets. Why isn’t the government fixing this? Why aren’t people marching to stop it?
It’s not that there’s a lack of understanding of how big the problem is. A recent survey by Center on Addiction — an organization I chair — found that people know addiction is the biggest problem we’re facing as a society. More respondents ranked overdose as the number one killer of Americans under 50 than gun deaths, car crashes, and natural disasters.
Government spending doesn’t reflect this. We need funding that is proportionate to the magnitude of this crisis that will offset the billions in productivity lost to addiction. Our lawmakers must make a serious investment in prevention and effective intervention. Where is the bold leadership?
I think we’re letting shame get in the way. We’re victim-blaming. We’re refusing to acknowledge that addiction is a disease and there are proven ways to treat it.
We have to look this thing in the face, own it, and lead from the front. It’s time to create a movement where we stand up and we’re heard. Everybody should say, “I know somebody. I want to help!”
There is a body of knowledge here. There are proven interventions and best practices.
Prevention is key. In 2011, Center on Addiction’s groundbreaking report showed that a child who gets to age 21 without smoking, drinking or using drugs is virtually certain never to get addicted.
We need to get more kids to 21. We need doctors to screen kids for substance use so we can catch it early. We need parents to ask the right questions and ask them early and often.
Only 1 in 10 people with addiction get professional treatment. That’s unacceptable. We need to ensure these high-quality treatments are fully integrated and available. We need insurance to cover treatment for this disease the same way they cover any other disease. We need to get to 10 in 10.
We also need to try new things — new ways of screening and intervening, new partnerships and approaches that bring people of all kinds together.
We have the roadmap. We need to look at the good work that’s been done over the last 25+ years – grab that map – and use it. The key is compassion + action. I know that together, we can do this. Our children’s lives depend on it. I’m ready to march; let me know when you will join me.
Plumeri was chairman and CEO of Willis Group and CEO of Citibank North America. He’s currently the Center on Addiction’s executive chair. He lost his son Christian to a drug addiction in 2008.
Appeared in The New York Daily News on June 20, 2018