How a Mom Movement Could Save the Country from Overdose Deaths
When Candy Lightner's 13-year-old daughter Cari was killed by a three time repeat drunk driving offender, she was desperate that the death not be in vain. That was the beginning of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).
Mothers' success in moving legislation and providing cultural awareness of the issues that affect their children provides a template of hope for moms now fearing another deadly yet preventable condition: death by overdose.
MADD is not a perfect comparison to the opioid problem, but the passion and pro-activity that fuels a mother to protect her child can go a long way.
More than 72,000 people died in 2017 from preventable drug overdoses. This is more than the number of U.S. deaths in the Vietnam War. It is more than the number of people who died from suicide, or car accidents and gun violence put together.
And it’s not just adults who are at risk. A new study shows that opioid poisonings leading to the death of youth increased nearly threefold between 1999 and 2016.
Government policies alone won't fix this problem. The recently passed $8.4 billion opioid package, which calls for improved screening on drugs coming in from overseas and increased access to treatment, will help on the margin — but bottom-up, grassroots activists who know the issue first-hand are the ones with the real opportunity to reverse this crisis.
Why moms? No one knows the carnage and heartbreak of addiction and overdose better than mothers. They are the ones who know their children the best, and know the mind-altering hold that drug addiction can have over their sons and daughters. They are uniquely and historically reliable in taking powerful actions on issues that affect their children.
They know their next phone call could be the death notice that hundreds of thousands have received in the past decade.
Cheryl Trisler has waited for that call for 15 years. She's my aunt. My first cousin, Chris, is currently serving a prison sentence for drug-related charges that came after she worked with police to locate him.
"I knew if he was in jail, he wouldn't be dead," she said. "Had he not been arrested, he would have been dead a year ago."
Yet criminalizing users and low-level dealers will not solve this problem either. Mothers should unite for better access to mental health and addiction care, something Trisler advocates for personally. She spent $3,000 a month putting her son through a juvenile incarceration program — cash she could barely scrape together and an amount most could not afford. But that is just the beginning of the monetary and human expense associated with the life of the opioid addict.
Chris has been revived using Narcan — a life-saving overdose drug — several times and was regularly beaten in drug deals gone wrong. Were there a nationwide mom movement for opioids, like MADD, Cheryl said she would would sign up on launch day.
A coalition of mothers fighting overdoses could follow the lead of MADD. Look at what they were able to do after their start in 1980. That year, more people died in car crashes because of drunk drivers than died in war. Today, that number has been slashed in half — thanks, in major part, to the dedicated work of MADD. The group was pivotal in lowering the legal driving limit for blood alcohol level, changing the federal drinking age to 21 and establishing the term "designated driver" as common vernacular.
A Mother Against Addiction (MAA) organization could take equivalent steps including implementing volunteer-led education programs in schools, ensuring Narcan is readily available over-the-counter in all states, offering free trainings at churches & community centers, advocating for "addiction conversations" within families, and ensuring every community has an accessible support network by working with local government programs, other community organizations, and related non-profits. This is not about government intervention — it's about a full throng effort between individuals, organizations, businesses, churches, and non-profits. And moms could lead the way.
With a concerted, inclusive, and organized effort it would be feasible to mobilize thousands of mothers who have been personally affected by the opioid crisis.
Chris will be out of jail soon. He has nowhere to live and has long since burned every bridge — all but the indestructible one that leads to his mom. She is hopeful but fearful for his fresh and fragile sobriety, committed to supporting him again and armed with knowledge about addiction, mental health and treatment plans. She is the now the well-informed mother that will do anything to help save her son — and she's not alone.
Since 1982, drunk driving fatalities have decreased by 48% annually and by 80% for those under 21. This would not have happened were it not for a group of concerned mothers aptly named MADD.
With knowledge and passion, the moms of America can help recreate this positive trend in the face of the overdose deaths stealing life from our nation's future.
Ericka Andersen is a freelance writer and the author of "Leaving Cloud 9: The True Story of a Life Resurrected From the Ashes of Poverty, Trauma and Mental Illness." She lives in Indianapolis, Indiana and hosts the "Worth Your Time" podcast.