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Shelter Island Reporter Editorial: Awareness and action

An Island gathering a week ago was termed “A Vigil of Hope,” and represented  the Island’s participation in International Overdose Awareness Day. Hope and awareness are valuable supports in the community’s effort to help people and their families who are in the crisis of addiction.

Several people at the vigil noted that when they were young, addiction was something rarely spoken of, and was freighted with shame.

More than 100 Islanders gathered on the basketball courts off Bateman Road, the evening of Thursday, Aug. 31, for International Overdose Awareness Day. (Credit: Ambrose Clancy)

The use of illegal drugs is a complicated subject, touching on all aspects of society. There’s the legal system, involving the police, the courts and the prison system. There’s the medical factor of addiction, and hospitals and treatment centers, and the debate on how best to treat those caught in cycles of dependency.

There’s the educational component, on how strategies are developed by the government, the schools and the media on how to produce clear, truthful information on what drugs are and what they do.

Often overlooked is, perhaps, the most important part of this structure — the human element. When word comes of overdose deaths, as it has recently to our communities on the East End, it’s easy to overlook those who have died — if we don’t know the individuals.

But worse than overlooking them and not realizing they were part of our community, is to stereotype them, placing them in a category and ignoring the fact that they were very much like us.

The stereotyping becomes absurd when looking at addiction as an illness, since illness doesn’t spare anyone. Alcohol and drug dependency is in every community, every economic class, every race and ethnic group. These days — maybe always? — it’s rare to find a family who has not been affected by a loved one who is dependent on alcohol or drugs.

The crisis is not limited to where we live, but is everywhere in the U.S. As our story relates, data from the  U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reveals that an estimated 110,000 lives were lost to overdose in the 12 months ending in March 2023.

There is work to be done on all levels of society — law enforcement, the court system, public health strategies, the media, government and education — to battle the forces that have ruined so many lives and brought sorrow and grief to too many families.

A good start in that work is to see those caught in cycles of dependency, and those who have lost their lives, as real, whole human beings, who have loved and been loved.