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Will 2020 candidates find a way to talk about the thing that’s killing Americans right now? | Will Bunch

Suicide, drug overdoses and despair continued to spike in 2018. Does America have a clue on fighting back?

Brothers Jasen (left) and Mark Edwards on the porch of their childhood home in Sophia, West Va. Both have struggled with opioid addiction and tell their stories in "Addiction," a "Nova" film airing on PBS on Wednesday, Oct. 17
Brothers Jasen (left) and Mark Edwards on the porch of their childhood home in Sophia, West Va. Both have struggled with opioid addiction and tell their stories in "Addiction," a "Nova" film airing on PBS on Wednesday, Oct. 17Read moreCourtesy of WGBH

Robert Whitley, an attorney in Bucks County, was sitting in the pews at Crossing Community Church in Newtown on a Sunday morning about two years ago when someone stood up and asked the congregation to pray for a family member who’d just died from a drug overdose.

Whitley said the sense of loss wasn’t totally unfamiliar — he’d lost a member of his extended family to addiction eight or nine years earlier — but he was jarred when just a week or two later another church member stood up with a similar request for prayers. Then, a week or two after that, there was a third.

“I’m thinking, 'Holy smokes! ... Three in a few weeks?” recalled Whitley. “And we’re a small congregation.” Well-connected in legal circles, he asked Bucks County District Attorney Matthew Weintraub to speak to the Newtown church and bring the county’s top expert on drug treatment — and then found out other churches and community groups were begging for the same thing.

That’s how Whitley came up with the idea for what’s now called “the Bucks County Blitz" — a two-week spring flurry of presentations and seminars on the still-worsening opioid crisis that has enveloped much of his county, from rusted cul-de-sacs of Levittown-style ranchers to Delaware River McMansions. The lawyer, whose crusade featured 70 events last year and may grow in 2019, said the goal is simply to have a frank, public discussion about the overlapping problems of drugs, alcohol, suicide, and despair that kill hundreds in Bucks County and thousands of Americans every year.

“The stigma,” he told me, “is still there.”

It certainly does seem like there’s a stigma against candid talk and innovative ideas in dealing with America’s deadliest crisis. Over the next couple of months, you’re likely to see a score (literally) of politicians announcing their 2020 White House bids, and you’re likely to hear some proposals about expanding health care or bringing jobs to the Rust Belt . These might tackle some of the symptoms but not the broader disease that is, arguably. killing 150,000 Americans every year and which goes by many names.

Alienation. Despair. Loneliness.

Instead of coming up with a bold new kind of politics that tackles America’s “deaths from despair” that manifest as heroin overdoses or suicide-by-gun or cirrhosis of the liver, the nation’s so-called leaders continue to warp our political debates around the tired fault lines of the past, Consider the words of President Trump in his very first address from the Oval Office, Tuesday night.

"More Americans will die from drugs this year than were killed in the entire Vietnam War,” the president said, citing the 300 citizens who perish every week from heroin overdoses. But Trump was marshaling those statistics to call for his boondoggle of a proposal for an ultimately $25-billion-or-more border fence — a political ploy for his xenophobic base that would divert money from the nation’s real problems.

Trump says he may declare a “national emergency” to build his wall without the approval of Congress — ironic since the “national health emergency” that the president declared in 2017 to tackle the opioid crisis that last year claimed more lives than the number of American soldiers killed in the entire Vietnam War has come with little serious follow-up in either dollars or White House attention.

Looking for a true American crisis? Last month, the Centers for Disease Control reported U.S. life expectancy is declining for the first time since 1993, and bucking the trends for longer living elsewhere. The clearly identifiable culprits were the rising rates — particularly among younger Americans — of drug overdoses, suicides, and liver disease tied to alcoholism. Soon, America could be losing our loved ones to what experts call “deaths of despair” at a rate of 2 million every decade.

That alarming report — quickly drowned out by the screaming sirens of Trump’s government-by-tweet — renewed my interest in a column that I wrote seven months ago that was headlined, “Suicide, drugs, despair: America’s biggest crisis is the one we don’t talk about.” Since then, we’ve had a big midterm election and rolled straight into the 2020 presidential campaign, and yet “deaths of despair” is still not an issue that we easily talk about in the few places left (mostly electronic) that Americans even talk about things.

Maybe that’s natural. The understandable tendency when you talk about alienation and despair — and arguably a correct one — is to declare it a “social problem” that’s way too complicated to deal with politically, let alone in any organized way.

But that seems like what we used to call “a cop-out” — an excuse for doing nothing, Last year, a major study found that 54 percent of Americans — especially our app-addicted young people — say that no one (no one!) really knows them well. That seems like a crisis, but what are the odds that a politician would start her or his presidential bid by stating, “I want to talk to the nation about the problem of loneliness,” when it’s so much easier to talk about undocumented immigration or what not?

If the United States has, in the past, declared “a war on poverty,” and “a war on terror,” why not declare “a war on despair”? But then, what would that look like? I spoke with an expert from the Well Being Trust, a non-profit that last year released what it calls a National Resilience Strategy that’s one of the few attempts at a nationwide plan for fighting “deaths of despair.”

“The problem is that our health care is so fragmented — especially mental health and substance abuse,” Benjamin Miller, the Denver-based chief strategy officer for the Well Being Trust, told me. “We operate a separate system to take care of the mind from the body, and that doesn’t really work out.”

Some of the specifics included in the National Resilience Strategy include calls for not just better coordinated services for mental health and addiction but also just more of them — expansion of the use of the anti-overdose drug naloxone as well as sterile-syringe programs for drug users. Programs would be less reactive and more focused on prevention, especially for groups with a higher risk of suicide. The plan would also train more behavioral workers but also work toward better integration of mental-health services into conventional health systems and insurance — a problem that any consumer of mental-health services knows all too well.

“We need leaders who’ve got a vision for leadership for health care that naturally assumes that responsibility for mental health is not treated as a one-off, or anything else but a main driving force,” Miller said. That includes a definition of a healthy community where people don’t just have access to a hospital but also to good schools and meaningful jobs.

No, that doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker like “Build the Wall!” But the first 2020 candidate who mentions “the war on despair” and cites the statistics on loneliness as a bigger crisis than the lack of a concrete border wall deserves a gold star — and is worthy of a serious look inside the voting booth. I’m not holding my breath, though. Recently, the Democrats announced a plan for a dozen presidential debates that sound like more of the same.

Imagine the first national presidential debate that focused not just on opioid ODs, suicide and alcoholism, but also on the American malaise that causes them. I’ll bet Robert Whitley and a lot of other folks in Bucks County would watch that. I know I would.