by Chirlane McCray

Last year, roughly 64,000 people died from a drug overdose in the United States — the largest annual increase in drug-related deaths ever recorded in our history. Overdoses are now the leading cause of death for Americans under 50. In New York City, we lost a record 1,374 people to drug overdoses in 2016.

And every single one of those deaths was preventable, because all addiction is treatable.

As a nation, we’re failing: failing those with substance use problems, failing those with mental health problems, and failing their friends and family. Cheap heroin and dangerously potent synthetic opioids like fentanyl are flooding our communities and killing our loved ones and neighbors, even as many people are still ashamed to seek help, afraid of being labeled as weak or undisciplined or simply criminal. And when people talk about overdoses, they still talk in hushed whispers or make ignorant condemnations that don’t acknowledge the humanity of the people about whom they are talking.

We need more than prison sentences or policy interventions: We need a culture change. We need to shift from a culture of shame and punishment to one of healing and wellness. And in communities, like ours in New York City, that are suffering, that shift means new policies.

We in government have a responsibility to build a system that treats diseases as diseases, even those that are stigmatized. More than 40 percent of people who struggle with addiction also have another mental health challenge of some kind—and most of those people never end up seeking treatment or services. In many cases, people turn to substances as a way to self-medicate for these untreated illnesses, or to help them cope with the trauma or emotional distress they face in their lives.

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