Overdoses happen everywhere - concert at Dodger Stadium - June 2022 Credit: Matt Holzmann

It is now Fall and it looks like a cold, cruel winter ahead for the most vulnerable in Orange County. The Sheriff’s Department recently released its Coroner’s Report for 2021 and the numbers are terrifying.

Overdose deaths spiked from 487 in 2020 to 937 in 2021, an almost 100% increase.  Almost all of it is related to fentanyl. Deaths involving methamphetamine have also jumped. Meth takes you up. Fentanyl brings you down. It’s a vicious cycle of addiction.

Deaths of those living on the streets have risen from 197 in 2017 to 395 last year. The crisis is spinning out of control.

This is not Los Angeles or San Francisco or Portland. This is here in the heart of the California Dream. I see it from my front door every day and I will not avert my eyes.

I spoke with someone the other day who lived in the bubble. Their life does not include these harsh realities. None of us want to face up to a cultural failure of which we are all a part.

It is easier to spend billions on programs and housing that never seem to solve the root causes of these plagues and then pretend that we have done enough. It is easier to live inside the bubble.

As we review the data we find that despite our efforts and good intentions we are doing it wrong. Our Sheriff’s Department and local police departments are pressed to be social workers and yet too often they are, along with our EMS services, called into a crisis which too often means picking up the deceased and putting them in a body bag.

This has to stop.

One of the definitions of mental illness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. This defines our risk-averse system. We have to do better and we have to do it now.

It starts with compassion and connection. It starts from an early age. It starts with education and engagement. We are losing too many children to suicide and overdose in a system that preaches compassion and tolerance but often delivers hopelessness to those most at risk.

It starts with a personal commitment to change. It starts with a leap of faith.

It starts with facing up to hard realities.

It starts with families. Sometimes they can be a part of the problem, and they are certainly a part of the solution. Sometimes we do the worst damage to those closest to us. Too many times we avert our eyes as a family member makes poor choices. Almost everyone on the street has family somewhere. Almost everyone at risk of taking that fatal step with narcotics or alcohol or suicide has someone who might pull them back from the edge.

Connection is critical. Too many of us are isolated in our self-made bubbles or by our circumstances. Loneliness leads to hopelessness. Hope keeps us going. The lack of it kills us.

It starts with people power. We must reach out to others, especially those who are isolated.  A few words of kindness can change a life. A few harsh words can start the spiral. Words matter.

There is a crisis in care. There are far too few clinicians for far too many in need. We are facing an existential crisis and yet when the alarm bells sound there is often no one to answer the call. We need more people trained at all levels.

There is a crisis in treatment. We need more mental health beds at all levels; in Acute Care facilities, in step-down care, and in residential care.

We need to meet people where they are and how they are. If someone is in a mental health crisis and is willing to take meds they have to be available on the spot. If someone with addiction decides they are ready to go into rehab, there has to be a bed available then and there. It may be the best chance they get to recover.

Family education is a big payoff. The data shows that empowering families to care for their loved one with a mental illness reduces re-hospitalizations by 85%.  Let’s stop the cycle before it starts. Warm handoffs from each level of care to the next are a must.

But with all of this, there needs to be accountability and transparency. At all levels. By our elected officials.  By our social services and health system. By families. And by each of us.

Each of these opportunities addresses a small part of a hugely complex puzzle. But failure is not an option. Every life has value. Every person has a place. Many of us don’t want to look in the dark corners. But if we are to improve our community and reduce deaths because of homelessness and addiction, we need to be brutally honest.

Matt Holzmann is an executive in the semiconductor and high technology industries with over 30 years of experience as an innovator and entrepreneur. He is also an advocate for systemic change in behavioral health to benefit all members of our community.

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