Why are Americans in so much pain?



Yahoo News photo Illustration; photos: AP, Getty

Brian Whitfield sat on the floor of his office, back against the wall, gun in hand and a heavy-duty garbage bag nearby. The gun was intended to kill himself. The garbage bag was meant to help whoever had the misfortune of finding him clean up the aftermath. His wife, he assumed. He had contemplated suicide multiple times in the months leading up to this moment, even drawing up a last will and testament. But the day with the gun was the only time he signed and sealed the detailed letter to his wife. It was the first time he actually held the gun in his hand, and it was the first time he considered a garbage bag. He loved a clean house and hated the idea of creating such a mess.

Whitfield says he still can’t pinpoint why he felt so intensely depressed or abandoned in those moments.

The chaos began about five years before, in 2011, when Whitfield visited multiple doctors for pain from knee and back injuries he had sustained while serving in the Marine Corps several years earlier. Despite surgery, the pain had worsened over time. Both Veterans Affairs and private doctors he saw agreed that long-term pain management with opioids was the only way of giving him relief.

The overprescription and pervasive abuse of opioids has become well-worn news, as the nation grapples with millions addicted to both legal and illicit opioid drugs (mostly heroin), which have been the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S. for several years. In 2017, the drugs killed more than 70,000 people — more than any year on record, according to numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that were released in December. Overdose deaths in the most recently recorded data were so high that they contributed to a decrease in overall life expectancy in the U.S. for the third year in a row, depressing the average to 78.6 years.

Despite being aware of the addictive properties of the drugs, Whitfield says he felt little hesitation about taking the medication. He read the required pamphlets of information about side effects and risks, and signed the form acknowledging and accepting them. Becoming dependent on the drugs, he says, was something that “would never happen to me.” After signing the forms, Whitfield says the risks of addiction were never mentioned again by doctors.

The opioid epidemic is a uniquely American problem. Americans consume a disproportionate share of opioids, about 30 percent of world production although the U.S. has less than 5 percent of the global population. The question becomes: Why are Americans in so much pain?


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