Why Are There So Many Drug Overdose Deaths in West Virginia?

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Why Are There So Many Drug Overdose Deaths in West Virginia?

According to a recent reports by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, West Virginia has the highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the country. But why?

Well, for one, it is also ranks third for the highest numbers of opioid painkiller prescriptions, behind Alabama and Tennessee.

But the prescription opioid epidemic is certainly not limited to West Virginia. Many New England and east coast states are being hit particularly hard – Kentucky, Ohio, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, to name a few.

Nationwide, the push for wider availability of opioid painkillers by Big Pharma begin in the mid-1990. This was just in time to curb the complaints of some, who were arguing there was a serious problem of undertreating pain in the healthcare industry.

But West Virginia also has some special circumstances that other states just don’t encounter.

There’s a reason why West Virginia is also known as “coal country”. The state is home to a huge number of occupations based around mining, timbering, and manufacturing. In fact, there are at least 18,000 mining jobs in the state – about 42% more than the nearest competitor, Kentucky (which coincidentally is the third highest for drug overdose deaths, nearly tied with the second in line, New Mexico).

Still, at 32 drug overdose deaths per 100,000 persons, West Virginia is 25% higher than either of those states.

And West Virginia has notoriously high rates of unemployment, as well. As recently as March of this year, WV reported a 6.6% unemployment rate, the third highest of any state in the country – second, if don’t count Washington D.C.

So what does all this mean?

Well, mining and other physically-taxing manual labor jobs can take a great toll on the human body, from both routine stress and on-the-job injuries. As prescription painkillers became commonly available, more and more of these workers turned to them to ease the pain of daily toiling. And in mining camps, they because a popular method for getting the workers back into the field.

In addition, the coal mining industry has been hit hard in terms of job loss, along with a generally declining economy in the state. According to a report Bureau of Labor Statistics report from August, 2015, West Virginia was the only state to incur a significant decrease in employment over the previous year – a loss of 19,000 jobs.

But miners aren’t the only ones suffering – according to the Wall Street Journal, construction and manufacturing jobs have decreased, on average, by around 20% since the recession.

Many believe that that the number of work-related injuries and failing economy may have lead to greater abuse of prescription drugs, and even heroin.

From The Appalachian Regional Commission (2009):

“Low education levels, high rates of unemployment and job-related injuries are closely linked to abuse of alcohol, illicit drugs and prescription medications.”

As prescription painkillers became more and more available to anyone who complained of pain, these medications took over as the “drug of choice”, more popular than even alcohol or illicit substances. While opioids don’t wreak havoc on society to the extent that alcohol does (injuries, domestic violence, drunk driving, etc.) it is much easier to overdose. Basically, it’s a lot easier to kill yourself on a few of these pills than to drink yourself to death.

And finally, once the health care industry began cracking down on prescriptions, the damage had already been done. Dealers with illegally gotten medications or heroin were ready to step in to fill the void left by legitimate prescriptions.

~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology

Related: South Florida Spikes in Heroin, Fentanyl Overdose Deaths

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