The packed main floor of the Augusta Civic Center was filled with hopes, applause, and tears on July 15. Obviously, this was the wrong time of year for the state basketball finals, but the same degree of statewide interest and energy was evident among the 1,100 people who attended last month’s Opioid Summit.
The energy in the room was palpable, yet in the midst of the enthusiasm sparked that day, I experienced a nagging fear. Specifically, that Maine will someday prematurely declare victory over the opiate epidemic when it isn’t yet over.
The opiate epidemic hits everyone in Maine – young, old, and everyone in-between; north, south, east, and west; rich and poor; cis- and transgender and non-binary; white, black, indigenous and people of color. Like the rest of the country, we stood by too long as opioid drugs silently crept into communities, causing death and destruction of families. And like the rest of the country, those impacted first and worst were often the communities that already face the greatest barriers to health, health care, and economic advantage. However, it wasn’t until the epidemic started to wreak havoc in white middle and upper class families that we collectively began to take more notice and work more diligently to solve the problem. It is a shame that it took so long to pay attention.
The past can’t be changed.
We can commit, though, to making the end of the epidemic different from the beginning. This will require working collectively and differently. Communities – as defined by geography and identity – that are most affected need to be at the table, helping to lead the way in turning the tide of the epidemic. They are already identifying solutions that can be employed more broadly, as they rely on community connection and empowerment.
We must attend to how the opioid crisis is affecting groups whose total numbers may be smaller, but where the proportional impact is much greater. If we declare victory when the statistics say we have emerged from the epidemic, we are at risk of stopping short and failing to support everyone, and instead will only have improved the situation for groups who are most numerous and most advantaged. If we can challenge ourselves to declare victory only when all communities have turned the corner, then we will truly have achieved success.