Philip Seymour Hoffman: What We Can Learn From Tragedy

Searching For Light in the Dark

“Happiness is like a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.” – Nathaniel Hawthorne

Philip Seymour Hoffman, renowned and Oscar-winning actor, was found dead of an apparent drug overdose in his apartment in New York on Sunday morning. Hoffman was 46.

According to numerous news sources, 50 bags of heroin and a variety of prescription drugs were found in his home at the time of his death. Hoffman was open in talking about his history with addiction. After a decade of sobriety, he admitted in 2013 that he had recently relapsed and entered a rehab program for heroin and prescription drug use.

This is, unfortunately, a common occurrence with drug addiction. Relapse can occur at any time, even decades later. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) states that relapse rates for substance use are 60%, comparable to other chronic illnesses such as hypertension and diabetes. Opioid use, including heroin and prescription drugs targeting pain, have a much higher relapse rate, around 80%.

Despite the infamous “War on Drugs” that began over 40 years ago, the United States, along with the rest of the world, continues to struggle with abusing legal and illegal drugs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), death from drug overdose has become the leading cause of injury death in the United States. 105 people die every day in the U.S. because of a drug overdose, while about 7,000 get treatment for the misuse of drugs in emergency departments. In 2010, drug overdose was the cause of more people dying than automobile accidents. The rates of drug overdose-related death have increased 102% from 1999 to 2010. In 2011, more than 2.5 million people were seen in emergency rooms because of drug use and misuse.

I recognize that targeting the source of drugs entering the country is a valid concern. Have legal issues and prison sentences fixed the problem at all? Have we paid enough attention to targeting the reason people use drugs in the first place? Reading the various posts about Hoffman’s tragic death, I was struck by the comments of his acquaintances, friends, and neighbors. Statements that echoed a sentiment of “He seemed like just a regular guy. He looked fine.”

This is where we need to step in with educating society at large about addiction. Substance use does not discriminate. Individuals of every race, economic bracket, religious background, sexual orientation, and profession are affected by addiction. These are not bad people. They engage in “bad” behaviors, but that does reflect their dignity or character. They do not lack morality. People use drugs for a variety of reasons, and drugs affect the brain in complex and intricate ways, chemically and psychologically. Individuals who abuse drugs often speak of the “high” that accompanies their use. Yes, drugs can give you that sense of euphoria, particularly on a neurobiological level. That high, however, is usually sought to alleviate the burden of uncomfortable and distressing feelings such as anxiety, depression, loneliness, and hopelessness.

Philip Seymore Hoffman more than likely did not intend to die. 38,329 people died from drug overdose deaths in 2010. Almost 80% of these were unintentional deaths. People dealing with addiction struggle on a daily basis with a myriad of factors that affect their substance use. Almost anything can trigger a relapse. A smell, a friend’s house, a happy occasion, or a negative emotional state. Proper education and treatment is integral to helping individuals in recovery.

If we do not recognize the roots of the problem, however, how can we adequately combat the devastating repercussions?

Where is our war for mental health? Where are the troops who go into at-risk communities to educate people about the dangers of drug use and its disastrous effects on the individual, the family, and the community? Where is our department of preventive defense in implementing strategies and programs in our schools and neighborhoods, teaching young and old about how to more effectively cope with life’s stressors? Where are the headlines when thousands who are not famous die from drug-related deaths?

Recovery is possible; it is not often easy, but it is possible. Take the time to learn about the process of addiction and recovery. Educate those around you. Reach out to people who have a problem and let them know you support them, that they are not alone. Research local treatment facilities and the services they provide. Through education, understanding, and compassion, tragedies such as Hoffman’s death may be avoided. In making these efforts, we can hopefully move in the direction of facilitating significant discourse and better treatment outcomes.

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