Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death brings attention to drug addiction

A woman sits in her window as she watches police outside the apartment of Award-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman after he was found dead in New York. Feb. 2, 2014. (Joshua Lott/Reuters) A woman sits in her window as she watches police outside the apartment of Award-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman after he was found dead in New York. Feb. 2, 2014. (Joshua Lott/Reuters)

The death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman Sunday from an apparent heroin overdose — the needle was still in his arm when he was found by a friend – is a tragedy.

But what hasn’t made headlines: the 42 women across the United States who die from drug overdose each day. In fact, drugs have killed more women since 2007 than car accidents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Eighteen of those women died after overdosing on prescription painkillers, like Vicodin and Percocet. But more and more women are turning to heroin, especially if they’re already hooked on painkillers. Both are considered opiates, but heroin’s cheaper and sometimes easier to get.

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, whose State of the State address in January focused only on drug addiction, said treatment for all opiate addiction had increased 770 percent since 2000 in Vermont. “What started as an OxyContin and prescription drug addiction problem in this state has now grown into a full-blown heroin crisis,” he said.

Deaths in Vermont from heroin overdose nearly doubled from the previous year, according to the governor. Vermont’s not some anomaly. Nationally, heroin deaths were up 45 percent from 1999 to 2010, according to the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Suburban women are probably the last group you’d think of when picturing heroin addicts, yet that’s what Dallas TV station WFAA found. Special Agent Calvin Bond of the Drug Enforcement Administration told a reporter that an alarming number of people — mainly women — drive in from the suburbs to buy heroin. “Heroin is a very powerful drug, and it’s having a very significant toll on the families in this area,” he said.

Filmmaker Beth O’Brien’s documentary, “The Hungry Heart,” takes a look at prescription drug addiction, often the precursor to heroin. Drug addiction to opiates often starts innocently, with a prescription to relieve pain from an injury or after surgery or from a condition like fibromyalgia. As it gets harder and more expensive to obtain such drugs, people turn to heroin as a cheap alternative that, some say, gives a better high. But it results in a physical addiction as the body builds up a tolerance and needs more and more.

The day before Hoffman’s death, the Kansas City Star ran an article on heroin that’s almost eerie, quoting a police officer saying, “We’ve found people dead with a needle still hanging out of their arm.”

In that same article, psychiatrist Jan Campbell, program director of the Kansas City Metro Methadone Program, said, “Relapse is the norm for just about everybody.” Hoffman had gone through rehab in his 20s and again in 2012.

Researchers aren’t always in agreement on what treatment methods work best for women or for men, but they are adamant that addiction’s a tough disease to treat.

And addiction is a medical disease, not a choice, writes Dr. Kim Dennis, a psychiatrist who’s CEO and medical director of Timberline Knolls, a residential treatment center for girls and women in Chicago.

“Saying that a person addicted to drugs can ‘just stop’ is like telling a diabetic they can simply toss out that insulin and be fine,” Dennis says in her blog.

Hoffman “died because he was an addict on a day of the week with a y in it,” screenwriter Aaron Sorkin wrote in “Time” magazine Wednesday.

He recalled how the two, during rehearsals for “Charlie Wilson’s War,” shared stories of their drug habits in “mini-AA” meetings. Then he quoted Hoffman as saying, “If one of us dies of an overdose, probably 10 people who were about to won’t.”

“He meant that our deaths would make news and maybe scare someone clean,” Sorkin explained.

Or, as Dennis explains, maybe help some addicts become “willing to get the help they need on a daily basis to recover.”

 

Diana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.

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