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Drug overdose fatalities touch many Americans, study shows

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

An estimated 42% of adults in the U.S. know someone who died from a drug overdose. That number is one of many in a Rand Corporation study out today, which demonstrates the sweeping effects of the drug overdose crisis. Reporter Martha Bebinger from WBUR reports.

MARTHA BEBINGER, BYLINE: That 42% figure translates to 125 million American adults. It means that in parts of the South and in New England, where overdose deaths are particularly high, nearly every other person you meet likely has at least one personal story to tell.

(SOUNDBITE OF ITEMS BANGING)

BEBINGER: You doing the potatoes too? Or...

LIAM HAFTER: Potatoes too. Then next, the apples.

BEBINGER: I was already scheduled for a shift at the Brookline Food Pantry yesterday, so while volunteers packed bags for delivery to shut-ins, I asked, did they know someone who died?

ARIELLE CHERNIN: Probably. There have been four people that I went to high school with that have died of an overdose.

HAFTER: Cousin's friend, just a month and a half ago.

LORI DAY: I can think of one in particular that's been recent; probably more, 'cause it's been many years.

BEBINGER: Arielle Chernin, Liam Hafter and Lori Day were not startled to learn that so many Americans have been touched by an overdose death.

DAY: This shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. It's been - everyone's seen it coming. And here it is.

BEBINGER: Chernin grew up in this town next to Boston. She's reminded of the people who are gone as she drives around the community.

CHERNIN: I think it's shocking when you know someone, like, from childhood or growing up. It makes you think back to signs or would you have ever predicted or those types of things.

BEBINGER: The Rand study is based on a survey of just over 2,000 adults. The results, published in the American Journal of Public Health, estimate more than 40 million Americans report at least a short-term impact on their mental or physical health while grieving an overdose death. Twelve million adults continue to mourn a devastating loss. Study co-author Alison Athey says there's very little help available for these millions of close friends and family members.

ALISON ATHEY: We're not talking about this population of people who are really struggling as part of our broader conversation about the overdose crisis. These folks really have been left behind.

BEBINGER: Athey says there's no formal outreach to avoid triggering more overdoses, as there would be after a suicide, for example. These families are not directed to clinics that offer counseling, medication if needed or guidance. There's usually no coordinated response from a school, workplace or community. Athey sees two reasons why. One, is that most of the time and money is, understandably, focused on trying to save lives. The other is the view that families mourning a drug-related death are not worthy of attention.

ATHEY: They tell me horror stories about people saying that the person who died deserved to die because they were a drug user and that it was inevitable that they died by overdose and sort of belittling the survivor who's left behind and who's grieving for the person who they loved.

BEBINGER: Leslie Gomes Preston has heard some of those cruel remarks about her daughter Kiara, who died after an overdose in 2016. Some parents coped by hiding their grief. Not Gomes Preston, who joined a grief support group for parents like her.

LESLIE GOMES PRESTON: I love to talk about it because, to me, I mean, it proves she was here. And I really believe that I'll think of things at the right moment and the right time. It's her.

BEBINGER: Gomes Preston says she can picture 20 or more of Kiara's high school classmates from Cape Cod who've also suffered a fatal overdose.

For NPR News, I'm Martha Bebinger in Boston.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEAN ANGUS WATSON'S "WALTZ IN SWEATERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Martha Bebinger