By Cyril Josh Barker
The death of actor Michael K. Williams sent shockwaves through the entertainment world after “The Wire” star was found dead in his Brooklyn apartment with drug paraphernalia. His death is being investigated as a possible drug overdose.
Williams was laid to rest at a private funeral service at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Harrisburg, Penn. where his mother lives. The service was only be open to family and friends.
Struggling with a drug addiction for years, Williams was open about his use of cocaine. In a 2017 interview, he admitted to going to Newark, N.J. to buy drugs with money he earned from his acting career and would sometimes show up on set high. Producers said they feared firing him would spiral his addiction out of control.
In April, rapper DMX (born Earl Simmons) was hospitalized for a cocaine-induced heart attack and died a week later of organ failure. DMX also had a long struggle with drugs, stating in 2020 that he became addicted to cocaine at age 14.
DMX was 50 at the time of his death, and Williams was 54.
According to the Gateway Foundation, between 2015 and 2016, the rate of drug overdose deaths increased by 40% among African Americans. From 2014 to 2017, death rates from synthetic opioid use increased by 818% among African Americans, which was a higher increase than for any other racial group.
While marijuana is the most commonly used substance among African Americans, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, psychotherapeutic drugs are the second most used, followed by cocaine and hallucinogens.
A study released this month by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) revealed that there was a 38% increase in opioid overdose deaths in Black people in four states including New York. NIDA Director Dr. Nora D. Volkow said racism is a factor in the overdose deaths.
“Systemic racism fuels the opioid crisis, just as it contributes mightily to other areas of health disparities and inequity, especially for Black people,” she said. “We must ensure that evidence-based interventions, tailored to communities, are able to cut through the economic and social factors that drive disparities in substance use and addiction, to reach all people in need of services.”
September is National Recovery Month, aimed at promoting treatment and recovery practices from all forms of addiction. The deaths of Williams and DMX are shedding light on the increasing number of African Americans dying from drug-related circumstances.
In an interview with the AmNews, psychologist Dr. Jeffery Gardere says mental health and drugs are interdependent on one another.
“When you have mental health issues, it’s quite possible that that drives your substance use, because the substance use becomes a self medication,” he said. “When you have a primary diagnosis of substance abuse we know over time that begins to cause mental illness, physiologically and emotionally.”
Gardere says the COVID-19 pandemic has put messages about the dangers of substance abuse on the backburner. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of June 2020, 13% of Americans reported starting or increasing substance use as a way of coping with stress or emotions related to COVID-19. There has also been an increase in overdoses.
So, what are the first steps someone should take if they believe they have a drug addiction? Gardere says breaking the denial is a start.
“I work with a lot of patients who came to me for help, but not for substance abuse,” he said. “Then we realized that they have very grave substance abuse issues causing a lot of the psychological issues that they have.”
In the case of helping a family member or loved one, Gardere says a crisis or family intervention is key and letting the user know that they will receive help in addressing the addiction. He also adds that perception is important.
“You can’t look at an addiction as a character weakness but as an actual medical disease,” Gardere said. “As we know, substance abuse begins to change a person’s brain with regard to neurotransmitters. It’s not a situation of ‘oh why don’t they just stop?’ Some people can do that but it’s really about also making a medical intervention. Detoxing, getting them on prescription medication such as an antidepressant or antianxiety. Group and individual therapy are also important.”
Drug recovery is one of the hardest things anyone can do, according to Gardere. He says consistency is important to any method. Statistics from American Addiction Centers shows that more than 85% of individuals relapse and return to drug use within a year following treatment.
“Someone can go into a treatment program, leave, get sober and become abstinent for sometime and they have some sort of a psychological issue or some tragedy and they start self-medicating,” Gardere said. “You have to have consistent care and the support of family and friends.”
New Yorkers struggling with an addiction, or whose loved ones are struggling, can find help and by calling the state’s toll-free, 24-hour, 7-day-a-week HOPE line at 1-877-8-HOPENY (1-877-846-7369), or by texting HOPENY (467369).