A new study published earlier this month found the opioid overdose death rate among Black people is rising faster than the rate of white people. 

At previous points in the ongoing opioid crisis, Black people experienced lower death rates than white people. A 2020 study even found that the rate of opioid overdose deaths in Black people was steady from 1999 through 2012 before it started increasing in 2013, which is when the white death rate began to level.

“It points out the fact that we have to do something different, a more intensive intervention in the African-American community,” Dr. Edwin Chapman, an internal medicine and addiction medicine specialist serving the Black community in Washington, D.C., told NPR.

The high profile drug-related deaths of Michael K. Williams and DMX are bringing attention to the issue and creating conversation around drug addiction in the Black community. Especially in the Black community, opioid overdose deaths are no longer prescription or heroin, but fentanyl.

Dr. Nzinga Harrison, co-founder and chief medical officer of Eleanor Health, recently told New York Amsterdam News that racism is stopping Black people who are seeking treatment. On top of difficulty in getting treatment, Black people stop treatments “up to five times more prematurely than whites,” AmNews reported.

“Even when we do get access to treatment, it’s not quite the standard of care,” Harrison told AmNews. “There are a lot of structural barriers that are leading to disproportionate impacts of substance use disorders on Black folks. One of them, for the opioid epidemic, is seeing the white face in the media, because it makes you think it’s not happening to us when it’s disproportionate to us.”

In the September 2021 study, the authors wrote that “an antiracist public health approach that explicitly examines the role of racism is urgently needed in research, public health, and policy approaches to address the crisis of opioid-related harms.”

Dr. Andrew Kolodny, the medical director for opioid policy research at Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management, told NPR that the US needs to keep better data on opioid addiction: not just deaths and hospitalizations, but gender, age, community type, and incidence rates.

“We need data we can act on. And that’s not here,” Kolodny said to NPR.

While studies showed opioid overdose death rates were rising While studies showed opioid overdose death rates were rising in Black communities prior to the pandemic, they have only continued to surge over the last 18 months. Health experts have said the pandemic created the perfect storm for those struggling with addiction: isolation, negative mental health impacts, and further barriers to treatment (fewer in-person appointments, telehealth, financial stress).

The campaign Stop Opioid Silence offers a platform for people in recovery, along with their loved ones, to share their stories and help end the stigma that prevents people from seeking treatment. In 2020, overdose deaths reached 93,000 during the pandemic, a record high.

“COVID-19 has exacerbated preexisting stressors, social isolation, and economic deprivation disproportionately in Black communities, possibly contributing to increased substance use,” authors wrote in a January 2021 study. “The preexisting racial disparities in accessing substance use treatment may also be heightened by COVID-19–related shifts in treatment availability.”

Maya Pottiger is a data journalist for Word in Black. She was previously a data journalist for the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland, where she earned both her BA and Master of Journalism. Her work has been featured...