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Study's findings demonstrate the sweeping effects of America's drug overdose crisis

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We have some new numbers today that show just how far and wide the opioid crisis has spread in the United States.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

A RAND Corporation study estimates nearly 1 out of every 2 adults knows at least one person who died from an overdose.

MARTIN: Joining us to talk about the impact that all these deaths are having on people, the people especially left behind, is reporter Martha Bebinger from WBUR in Boston. Martha, good morning.

MARTHA BEBINGER, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: Would you just start by telling us a bit more about what the researchers learned?

BEBINGER: Yeah. So, Michel, researchers surveyed more than 2,000 adults, and they used the results of that survey to estimate what's happening across the country. It shows that 125 million adults know someone - in many cases, they know more than one person - who's died after an overdose. Now, you might imagine some of those connections are pretty casual, like the friend of a cousin or a high school buddy you didn't stay in touch with, but an estimated 40 million Americans had enough of a relationship to say that the death had an impact on them. And the study says about 12 million people continue to grieve what's described as a devastating loss.

MARTIN: So it's a survey. It's based on the modeling. But just even based on the modeling, those are just pretty devastating figures.

BEBINGER: Yeah.

MARTIN: So is this true across the board or does it vary state by state?

BEBINGER: It does vary, yes. So in states where there are more overdose deaths, like Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee and also all of New England, where I live, there are more people with a direct connection because there are more deaths, right? So in these areas, researchers worry that the impact of all this collective trauma might be leading to even more suffering. This is Alison Athey, the lead author on the RAND study.

ALISON ATHEY: This type of bereavement is creating vicious circles within communities where there's a death that spurs suffering that spurs more deaths that spurs more suffering, and there's an exponential increase.

BEBINGER: So Athey says these communities may need some individual strategies to stop that spiral of grief and despair that she's just described that might lead to more deaths. And these strategies might be along the lines of what's often offered to families who lose someone to suicide. So we might sort of have a model to use.

MARTIN: And so what might these strategies look like?

BEBINGER: The researchers are very concerned about the families left behind after a death. They're concerned that they're being left behind in other ways because there's very little public attention or support to help them with their trauma. So they want more support. And the study authors say we also have to stop shaming and blaming people who are addicted to opioids because that extends, then, to the friends and family members who survive these deaths.

Here's an example of that. This is Leslie Gomes Preston. She heard some very ugly comments about her daughter after she died in 2016.

LESLIE GOMES PRESTON: Some people, they hear drugs and they think, well, she must've been a bad person. I've had people say that it's my fault. Some people are just cruel.

BEBINGER: So these kinds of messages compound grief. They make people want to clam up or isolate instead of heal.

MARTIN: And, Martha, before we let you go, are researchers concerned about any specific groups of survivors?

BEBINGER: Children. Children, Michel. A lot of people who die leave children behind. They're living with grandparents or in foster homes. They weren't part of this research, which only sampled adults, but other research has shown that rates of childhood suicide are even higher in communities where there are lots of overdose deaths. So we know there are more ripple effects beyond what's in the study we've just been talking about.

MARTIN: That's Martha Bebinger from WBUR in Boston. Martha, thank you so much for joining us.

BEBINGER: Thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: And if you or someone you may know may be considering hurting yourself or are in crisis, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered and host of the Consider This Saturday podcast, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Martha Bebinger