The opioid crisis: wrapped in numbers, wrapped in a song

The toll of the opioid epidemic goes far beyond the numbers.

One of my favorite musicians, John Prine, wrote a song on his 2018 album Tree of Forgiveness called “Summer’s End.” It’s classic Prine: a simple melody, his gruff voice singing over soft fingerpicking, lyrics that evoke an understated, whimsical poetry. The refrain goes come on home / come on home / no you don’t have to / be alone / just come on home.

Prine made the decision to have the music video for his song tell an all too common story of the opioid epidemic that’s ripped apart America for the past two decades. Set in the hills of a nameless Appalachian town, a region that’s been particularly hard hit by the crisis, it opens on scenes of a little girl picking corn with her aged grandfather. Eventually we realize the little girl isn’t simply visiting him; she's living with him. What’s alluded to throughout the video is her mother’s death at the hands of a drug overdose.

We see the little girl’s life, now forever changed, in juxtapositions of the ordinary and heart wrenching. One moment she’s drawing with chalk on the playground or sitting in class listening to her teacher; with the cut of a frame she’s crying uncontrollably at the incomprehensible loss she’s just suffered. We see her grandfather, too, grieving silently over the daughter he couldn’t save. But we never actually see the narrative of the struggle and turmoil of the mother’s addiction. We don’t see her fatal moment, or the funeral afterward. We only see those she left behind.

It’s hard to encompass in numbers the totality of the damage exacted by the opioid crisis. The statistics, while well calculated, are estimates at best, and time periods over which data is collected fluctuate depending on the entity studying it. And the calculations can be sliced in so many different ways one can get lost in a simple Google search trying to build a mental picture of it all.

In the simplest terms, more than 564,000 Americans died by opioid-involved drug overdose from 1999 to 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In Pennsylvania, an estimated 39,344 citizens of the Commonwealth died from opioid-related overdose from 2012-2021, according to a recent report by the attorney general’s office.

The economic impact of the epidemic is just as shocking. A 2017 report by the CDC tallied the country’s total economic burden of the crisis at $1,021 billion. A report from the same year by Pennsylvania’s auditor general’s office places the Commonwealth’s share of the annual economic burden at roughly $25 billion.

I highlight these two seemingly disparate perspectives on the opioid crisis – the images and the numbers, the songs and the statistics – because we need both to fully understand how deeply its ripples have now embedded themselves into our society. To call the devastating impact of opioids a ‘crisis’ by now is an understatement; it almost feels endemic at this point.

This month The Gettysburg Voice will be highlighting the story of the opioid epidemic in Gettysburg and Adams County. From the perspectives of those involved in the front lines of care to the families and friends who’ve endured the loss of loved ones to the policymakers responsible for directing funding and services, we will take a 360-degree view of the landscape of where we’ve been, how we’re doing now and where we’re going. After roughly a decade of media coverage on the topic, it’s easy to think the opioid epidemic is old news, but it's imperative now more than ever that we don’t let awareness of its toll fade into the background.