According to data from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, last year saw a leap of nearly 30 percent in deaths from drug overdose, 75 percent of which was attributed to opioids. According to the data, deaths from opioid overdose rose by nearly 40 percent last year alone.
These alarming statistics are by far the worst of any country, but the US is not alone in its opioid crisis. During roughly the same time period, opioid use among teenagers in Israel has soared, accompanied by a surge in calls to emotional help centers.
In both the US and Israel, the problem is not opioid use per se, but the sense of pointlessness that drives young adults and teens to try to escape from reality. Today, when people have everything they need materially, questions about the meaning of it all become increasingly poignant.
This is true not only of teenagers and young adults, but also of their parents. In fact, part of the reason why teenagers cannot answer to themselves the question about the meaning of life is that their parents do not know the answer either and are just as perplexed. Since parents cannot provide answers, children remain frustrated.
Opioid abuse is only one facet of the problem. In truth, everywhere you look, people are unhappy, depressed, angry, and frustrated. This is why so many of them turn to extremes to find meaning: religious fundamentalism, extreme sports, violence, and substance abuse.
The solution, therefore, does not lie in a particularistic approach to opioid overdose. There needs to be a comprehensive system that informs people about the changing reality and teaches them how to deal with it.
This system needs to start in early childhood and continue well into adulthood. People should be placed in social circles that provide them with social support, warmth, sympathy, and empathy. The relationship with the group should be an extended one and continue through life, providing people with a base to lean on and from which to grow.
Gradually, people will begin to develop new values. Instead of seeking meaning and satisfaction derived from self-centered goals, people will find meaning in reciprocal relationships with others. They will begin with the core group I just mentioned and develop from there to wider and wider circles.
On the other side of the crisis lies a new society, connected and supportive. But getting there requires squeezing through a narrow cave where the light on the other end is dim and erratic.
The pain that drives people to opioids and other forms of escapism is the result of the pressure from being in the process of shifting from one world to another. On the one hand, pleasures from the old world no longer give them the joy they once had; on the other hand, they have not discovered the pleasure in reciprocating with others. As a result, they feel “trapped in a cave” and are desperately looking for an escape.
For this reason, it is not a bad sign when people feel bad; it is a sign of change, of growth. At the other end of the cave lies the light of a connected and caring society. If we push through and do not give up halfway, we will quickly reach the light. If we linger, reality will push us through the cave until we arrive on the other side bleeding, bruised, and battered.
Tablets of the opioid-based Hydrocodone at a pharmacy in Portsmouth, Ohio, June 21, 2017. REUTERS/Bryan Woolston