Series Strives to Put Human Face on Maine's Opioid Crisis

Mar 24, 2017

The Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram launch a series this Sunday that attempts to put a human face on the opioid crisis.  Maybe too many faces, says Dieter Bradbury, the publication's deputy managing editor for news.  Bradbury spoke about the series with Maine Public Radio's Morning Edition host, Irwin Gratz.

"We actually interviewed more than a hundred families, but we decided to publish short profiles - we called them "vignettes" - of 60 people who have died," Bradbury says.  He says 50 people, including 28 reporters worked on the series they're calling "Lost."  

GRATZ:  Were these vignettes about their lives or about the addiction and eventual overdose that killed them?

BRADBURY:  Both, actually.  It would be irresponsible of us, and not accurate of us, to write a profile of a person who died of an overdose and not get into the subject of their drug use and how it began and perhaps why.  But we didn't want to leave it at that because addiction is something that just takes over a person's life.  But these were people, these were not just drug addicts with that label, and one of the things we heard over and over again from families was my son or my daughter or my mother or my father or my brother or my sister was not just an addict.  So we sought to capture something about who these people were in a larger sense.

GRATZ:  Is the newspaper doing this in part because you suspect some lack of urgency around the problem?

BRADBURY:  I wouldn't want to say that nothing has been done.  Clearly that's not true - things have been done and made some people are very, very concerned about this problem.  But I think we do believe that there has not been a great sense of urgency or a sustained commitment. And, you know, in some areas decisions were made and priorities were set that I think delayed some life-saving that could have taken place.

GRATZ:  Does all of this research point to the direction society needs to go to get a grip on this problem?

BRADBURY:  Well one thing that we found that really underlies this problem is your concept of what addiction is.  Is it a disease or is it bad behavior?  And if you learn something about this, as we did in the course of this project, it's pretty clear that addiction is a disease.  It actually restructures your brain when you use opioids and after a certain point it is not a choice.  You are not chasing a high anymore, you are running away from pain:  physical pain or emotional pain, and oftentimes both.  And if you understand addiction as a disease then responses that you make, and that we make as a society, are likely to be more compassionate.  We’re likely to make better decisions about treatment and we're perhaps less likely to be punitive and judgmental.

GRATZ:  Is that one of the things perhaps you’re hoping will come out of this - a greater awareness of that distinction?

BRADBURY:   I think we'd like to see more compassion and more effective responses to this problem which has so many terrible costs - personal costs and social costs - for our state.

GRATZ:  Based on what you’ve learned, have you spoken with officials in government and in politics about this?   

BRADBURY:  We have tried to interview Gov. LePage and Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew because they are very influential, and have the ability to set policy directions and see that state funding is made available for this problem.  They did not want to be interviewed for this series of stories.  We did speak to others in the Legislature and to experts in the field of addiction and doctors. However, you won't hear a lot of expert voices in this project.  We really wanted to focus on the families and the folks who are closest to them to talk about their personal experiences and kind of let that set the tone for what we did here.