“We can’t arrest our way out of this. This is a public health issue.”
Listening to law enforcement officers repeat this concept in reference to the opioid epidemic reveals the type of holistic thinking that we need to approach not only all addiction, but crime of all types. If we took the same approach to the opioid epidemic that we did to crack, it would not end opioid addiction. It would simply mass incarcerate white Americans, raise them in the carceral system, give them felony records, and create an abundance of “broken homes” with multigenerational impact, an outcome this country would never tolerate.
As a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Addictions Specialist, I agree with a holistic approach to addressing not only the opioid epidemic, but crime of all types. Working in the field of human behavior for nearly 20 years, I’ve learned repeatedly that all behavior is an expression of need. While stopping unhealthy behaviors is a goal, stopping behaviors without understanding the needs expressed and proactively replacing them with more constructive actions, only perpetuates an endless game of destructive whack-a-mole.
The opioid epidemic reiterated a longstanding American theme: when this country sees the victims as worthy, we will develop a response ripe with thought, resources, empathy, and intentionality. You don’t get trite responses like, “It just comes down to parents. These kids doing dope obviously aren’t being raised right.”
This brings me to the gun violence epidemic we see with our young people. Directly repeating the words of law enforcement: “We can’t arrest our way out of this. This is a public health issue.”
We have a problem with gun violence in this country that is disproportionately young and male — homicide, disproportionately Black; suicide, disproportionately white. Where is the proactive holistic response? Where is the curiosity of root causes? When we see young white males commit mass shootings, there is a curiosity about what led to this and how we can prevent things like this from occurring again. These are appropriate responses. But when do we extend this intentionality to murders when those pulling the trigger or dying are Black or other young people of color?
If your response is, “Black people need to take care of it,” understand Black people will continue to do what we can, however, why is the response to the opioid epidemic, not simply, white people — who represent 80% of overdoses — need to take care of it? Both issues warrant multi-faceted, all-hands-on-deck approaches that go beyond reactively attempting to arrest people as death tolls climb.
We need a commitment from all levels of government to partner with community advocates and our collegiate schools of public health, social work, education, and business to explore the why and to lay out and execute clear pathways to addressing this gun violence epidemic. Last year, when kids were out of in person learning, the parental cries about the impact on young people’s mental health were significant. And yet, we failed to recognize that youth mental health was poor, under-addressed, and under-resourced before the pandemic. Now, with kids back to in-person learning, instead of mental health concerns, the only thing we hear from adults now are arguments over masks and criticism of lower standardized test scores from a global pandemic year.
Do we need a socioemotional standardized test or Zillow score for this community to get it? More socio-emotional “rigor” that values effective peer interaction and coping? Are the suicides, sexual assaults, murders, and overdoses across demographics not enough? Our kids are disconnected and crying out. But more than their average EOG test scores from last year, our adult response continues to regress.
Justin Perry of Charlotte is a contributing columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.