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The statistics of the opioid crisis are jarring enough:
- The crisis cost the economy $95 billion in 2016; most of that is from overdose deaths according to Altarum.
- 64,000 people died from opioid overdoses in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- 20% of the decline in men’s labor force participation might be due to the opioid crisis, Princeton University economist Alan Krueger estimates.
But big numbers don’t compare to the raw human toll the opioid crisis has inflicted on families and communities.
One family told their story at the U.S. Chamber’s event, Combating the Opioid Crisis: From Communities to the Capital.
"We are unfortunately members of a very exclusive club,” Mary Winnefeld explained. "It's a club of families who have lost someone to an overdose."
Mary and her husband, Admiral James “Sandy” Winnefeld (Ret.), lost their son Jonathan to a heroin overdose.
Growing up, Jonathan suffered from anxiety disorder, but it was misdiagnosed as attention deficit disorder.
He was put on Adderall. When that didn’t alleviate the anxiety he moved to alcohol, marijuana, Xanax, and eventually heroin.
Jonathan’s behavior fell apart, as Sandy writes in a moving essay in The Atlantic:
The incidents worsened after a girlfriend turned away from him and he was disqualified from playing varsity baseball during his senior year due to deteriorating grades. One April night that year, a suicidal gesture and a car accident left him in the hospital and left us with no doubt that we needed to make a radical change.
Jonathan spent five days in a Richmond, VA psychiatric ward, then fifteen months at an inpatient addiction treatment facility.
"Addiction physically changes the brain, and it takes time for the brain to recover," Sandy told the U.S. Chamber audience.
As he recovered, Jonathan began turning his life around. From Sandy Winnefeld’s essay:
Over 16 long months, we saw him almost miraculously begin to pull out of the abyss. We were gradually getting our son back. We watched as his brain recovered and he turned back into his old self. He was more communicative, he was happy to see us when we visited, and he even led a 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous meeting once a week.
While in treatment, he earned his emergency technician qualification and made plans to attend the University of Denver.
A few weeks before school started in Denver, Jonathan was taking an electrocardiograph night course. Unfortunately to get to class every day he walked past an open-air heroin market and eventually relapsed.
Only his parents didn’t know it at the time. Mary and Sandy helped move their son into his college dorm, but three days later, Jonathan was dead from an overdose of heroin laced with fentanyl.
Compelled by their own experience, the Winnefelds founded SAFE—Stop the Addiction Fatality Epidemic to fight the opioid crisis and prevent future addiction related fatalities.
It connects law enforcement, medical groups, treatment programs, and civic organizations to learn the best ways to fight the opioid crisis.
"We want to find out what's working," said Sandy. "So that a community that doesn't know what to do and wants to stand up to this can make it happen."
U.S. Chamber President and CEO Tom Donohue commended the Winnefelds for their work on the opioid crisis and added that we need to “put a stop to this scourge.”
“The business community will join you in these efforts because they fundamentally understand that an economy that is attacked by addiction will make it very difficult for business at every level,” said Donohue.
Also pledging help was Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR), Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Speaking at the conference, he emphasized the need for a bipartisan front in fighting the crisis.
“The opioid crisis has taken a strangle-hold on our communities – killing our friends, family members, and neighbors regardless of race, socioeconomic status, geographic location, or political affiliation,” he said. "Combating the opioid crisis must be a collaborative, bipartisan effort. No one person has the answers. And no one bill will provide the solution."
Opioid addiction, suffering, and death is a story happening too often across the country. But we shouldn't be discouraged. Instead, we should be inspired by what the Winnefelds are doing. With a united front, business, government, and communities can successfully combat the opioid crisis.