Austin music community looks for help in struggle to end opioid abuse

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Local opioid abuse cases are growing, particularly within Austin’s music community.

Three musicians have died from opioid overdoses since December, according to numbers provided by the SIMS Foundation, a local nonprofit that helps musicians with mental health and substance abuse issues.

Members of the local music community seeking opioid abuse help through SIMS increased 240 percent between 2016 and 2017, said Heather Alden, the foundation’s executive director.

Alden said SIMS—the only organization of its kind in Austin—had its resources drained by the unprecedented uptick in substance abuse cases. The organization has since turned to the city, where leaders have stated a new focus on the national health crisis quickly gaining momentum citywide.

Why this, why now?

Opioids are a class of drugs that work to relieve pain and relax the body, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, a federal research organization. The drug’s chemicals block pain receptors in the brain and release dopamine, a reaction responsible for the high the drug induces.

Prescription opioids include oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, codeine and fentanyl, a powerful variety of the drug that has made recent national headlines attached to overdose deaths. Heroin is considered an illicit opioid.

Escape from the “debilitating” withdrawal of the drug is also behind its heavy abuse, said Dr. Carlos Tirado, founder of the local CARMA Health and president of the Texas Society for Addiction Medicine.

Tirado said in the mid-1990s, pain joined body temperature, pulse rate, breathing rate and blood pressure as a vital sign—signs routinely monitored by health care providers—and shifted how doctors prescribed opioids.

“This [national opioid crisis]has really been 20 years in the making,” Tirado said. “Doctors went from just using them for cancer and other end-of-life situations to prescribing them for any kind of pain problem. We’re having to deal with that now.”

The music community speaks up

“I’ve seen friends die, and it sucks,” said Carlos Sosa, a Grammy-winning music producer from Austin. “Choosing to be an artist is rough. It’s not a traditional path at all. Just to make a living is impossible.”

Sosa came up in Austin’s music scene during the 1990s, playing five nights a week. The award-winning producer has since earned considerable success; his recent credits include working alongside Kelly Clarkson, Hanson and the Zac Brown Band. However, he said the pressure tied to perfect self-expression and surviving as a performing artist does not discriminate based on record sales.

“Every night is an opportunity to party,” Sosa said. “It’s very easy to get into drugs as a musician, and before you know it you can develop an addiction.”

Between playing clubs and bars late at night, high-adrenaline stage performances and isolation, Sosa said artists likely see opioids and other depressants as an escape from the unconventional lifestyle.

Oren Rosenthal, a member of the city’s music commission, said the affordability crisis facing local musicians adds to the pressure. He said local musicians have a lack of health care and mental health resources, and pointed to music legends Prince and Tom Petty, who both died of accidental opioid overdose.

“If even they are dying, how is a poor person going to make it?” Rosenthal said. “[This crisis] has shown me just how much more vulnerable musicians are than the regular population.”

The city eyes a strategy

City Council officially prioritized the local issue May 24 when it called for a multi-departmental and regional strategy to address the uptick in opioid abuse cases.

Although opioid abuse locally has not reached the levels of some areas in the country, Austin Mayor Steve Adler said it was incumbent on the city to respond to the increase in cases.

“This is Austin trying to be proactive, looking at what’s happening in other cities and saying, ‘Let’s not wait until that happens to us,’” Adler said. “We’re seeing the early signs of that.”

As the city begins drafting its budget, the city manager will look at what programs the city can fund, with special consideration of the impact opioids have had on the music community. The city will also seek opportunities to lobby the state government for opioid abuse policy, and consider joining lawsuits against producers and distributors of prescription opioids.

“We need a community-based response,” Alden said. “If this has not peaked in the nation, then this has not peaked in our community.”

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Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following two years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and USA Today. He is a graduate of the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
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