Actor’s death reminds of NC’s OPIOID crisis
By Cash Michaels
The untimely death of gifted actor Michael K. Williams - star of HBO’s Lovecraft Country and The Wire, among other noteworthy productions - last week, according to authorities, apparently attributed to a drug overdose in his Brooklyn home, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, reminded all that the Black community has to struggle with two growing health challenges that threaten our everyday living.
It has been well documented that even though, at press time, there was no official determination of what exactly caused the Emmy-nominated Williams’ death, the actor’s well-documented drug use history, and the paraphernalia and heroin allegedly found on his kitchen table, pointed toward an apparent overdose of the deadly, and illegal opioid as the culprit.
Williams, 54, was always open about his drug abuse problems, something he suffered from since the age of nineteen.
In 2012, he told NJ.com that he spent his earnings from The Wire on drugs.
“I was playing with fire, he said. “It was just a matter of time before I got caught and my business ended up on the cover of a tabloid or I went to jail or, worse, I ended up dead. When I look back on it now, I don’t know how I didn’t end up in a body bag.”
It was February 2020 when Williams told an event for former prisoners that his work in movies was a way to beat his habit. “This Hollywood thing that you see me in, I’m passing through. Because I believe this is where my passion, my purpose is supposed to be.”
Sadly, Williams’ addiction may have eventually destroyed them both.
Here in North Carolina, there are thousands who are in the same boat, officials tell us. And while opioid addition is primarily white, it is becoming increasingly Black.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, an estimated 79% of drug overdose deaths involved opioids in 2018 in North Carolina. In 2019, “nearly five North Carolinians died each day from unintentional opioid overdose. From 2000-2019, more than 16,500 North Carolinians lost their lives to unintentional opioid overdose, reports the NC Dept. of Health and Human Services’ Opioid Action Plan Data Dashboard.
Think the opioid and COVID-19 crises have nothing to do with each other? Think again.
According to North Carolina Public Radio in a report out just last month, opioid overdose deaths in the state actually increased during the coronavirus lockdown, contributing to the fact that North Carolina had more opioid overdose deaths in 2020 than any other year on record.
The most commonly, and overly prescribed opioid is Oxycontin.
"Opiate addiction is a group of diseases that people call the diseases of despair,” said Dr. Graham Snyder, medical director of WakeMed in Raleigh to WUNC-FM. “Meaning when things are bad — when unemployment, education, job uncertainty, food uncertainty are bad — then those diseases get worse.”
"You take people who are already struggling and say, 'Oh now you are unemployed. You can't do the fun things you used to and everywhere you look, there's uncertainty.' That is a setup for an opioid crisis. And the numbers have gone up, but they are not skyrocketing yet," Dr. Snyder continued.
So how does that translate racially?
In a new report issued just last week, “an increasing number of Black people in America are dying from opioid overdose deaths, compared with their white peers….,” states The Independent. “The rate of opioid overdose deaths has been climbing for African Americans faster than other groups, a study from the National Institute of Health’s National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) found,” The Independent added.
“The reasons for the disparity, according to the study’s authors, are diverse. Because of stigmas and a lack of access to healthcare, Black people are both less likely to be prescribed opioids in the first place for their pain, and less likely to get life-saving addiction treatment once they develop difficulties with the drugs.”
"If you are Black American and you have an opioid use disorder, you are much less likely to be prescribed medications for opioid use disorder," Dr Nora Volko, head of NIDA, told NPR. “That’s discrimination.”
North Carolina was not part of NIDA’s four-state study, but that does not mean the results do not apply to areas like Wilmington, Greensboro, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, and Asheville.
In 2016, according to the study, The Opioid Crisis in America’s Workforce from Castlight Health, Wilmington leads the nation in opioid abuse at 11.6%.
In 2014, opioid addiction was reported as “spiking’ in Guilford County, the third most populated in North Carolina. In addition, Heroin addiction was particularly bad in Greensboro.
In 2017, Axios Charlotte reported that ‘…in the last decade, opioid-related deaths in the county have increased by 134 percent.”
And, according to the Buncombe County Dept. of Health, Buncombe County experienced “…147% increase in overdose deaths from 2015-2017.”
Editor’s Note - What is being done in North Carolina to combat the scourge of opioid drug addiction, especially in the Black community?