Opioids and the Grief They Engender

It is a recurring story in American life: Grief and loss spur grassroots political action. We’ve seen it with AIDS, drunk driving, gun control and, now, the opioid crisis. Families of overdose victims have filed lawsuits and led protests against Purdue Pharma and other peddlers of addictive, opioid-based painkillers. March 6 marked the fourth Black Balloon Day, an event started by a grieving family to raise awareness of overdose deaths.
 
Graduate Center Ph.D. candidate Emily B. Campbell leans against a wall.Graduate Center Ph.D. candidate Emily B. Campbell (Sociology) is familiar with the pain and power of grief. She has lost friends and classmates to accidental overdoses, and for her doctoral dissertation, she studied the opioid crisis and the grief it has generated.
 
Despite the staggering number of opioid overdose deaths in the U.S. — more than 190 a day — “the social experience of grief was something that wasn’t being written about or fully grappled with,” Campbell says. She wanted to understand the social response to the addiction crisis.
 
Fieldwork she conducted in Mexico early in her dissertation research gave her a sense of the human toll of the illicit drug trade on the other side of our border, where the so-called Mexican Drug War has cost hundreds of thousands of lives and uprooted entire towns.

Campbell says that she wanted to understand the impact of the drug war “for people that aren’t explicitly involved in any way, just ordinary citizens.” She interviewed human rights workers in the state of Tlaxcala, just east of Mexico City, ground zero for a blooming trade in blancas — young women and girls forcibly trafficked along with shipments of drugs and weapons throughout Mexico and the U.S.
 
“Mexican society itself has paid and continues to pay a huge and disproportionate human cost for the drug trade and for Mexico’s militarized response to drug trafficking,” she wrote in a 2017 article in the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester, Massachusetts.
 
Back in the United States, Campbell zeroed in on New England, a region with one of the highest overdose rates in the country. She interviewed families of victims, observed grief groups and advocacy meetings, spoke with social workers, visited health care facilities, and attended public gatherings. She came away with a thorough understanding of what she terms “communities of care” or “care networks that people have built out on the community and grassroots level in response to … health care shortcomings and the challenges in getting treatment for loved ones or for themselves.”
 
In these networks, families band together in the desperate struggle to locate beds for their loved ones in overwhelmed treatment facilities. Over time, the networks become politicized as, she says, “people find commonalities in their frustration.” Last year, Campbell watched a protest in Boston in which people stood outside the State House holding photographs of their deceased family members. “They realize that nothing’s going to bring back their loved one, but they do want some sense of justice,” she says.
 
In its coverage of artist Nan Goldin, a recovering heroin addict and overdose survivor who has led protests against Purdue Pharma, The New York Times observed, “The fight against the opioid crisis is not one that draws easy sympathy. There are no breathtaking photographs of glaciers melting into the Arctic Ocean to pull at your heartstrings, and there aren’t any fresh-faced high school students on CNN demanding better gun laws. Opioids are perceived as an embarrassing blight in already depressed areas of the country, and addiction is largely seen as a metaphor for weakness, a failure of the will.”
 
Campbell notes that the sheer size of the crisis means that whether or not we choose to acknowledge it, “it’s a part of our social world.”
 
Her study makes significant contributions to sociology, particularly the sociology of death and dying, and to political theory. She also would like to inform broader discussions of drug policy.
 
“We constitute the biggest market for illicit drugs, and that has been the case unabated in spite of eradication efforts and trying to stomp out drug supply,” she says. In the long term, she hopes her research will change perceptions of the issue and lead to policies that will “make this less deadly for everybody.”
 
Campbell will present her dissertation work as part of Inside The Graduate Center: A Dissertation Showcase on May 13. 

Submitted on: APR 11, 2019

Category: General GC News | Sociology | Student News