Since the U.S Department of Health and Human Services declared the opioid crisis a national health epidemic in 2017, America’s focus has remained on white communities. However, the rate of opioid-related deaths in Black communities continues to rise.
The Chicago Department of Health reported 793 deaths due to opioid overdoses in 2017. Out of those noted deaths, 403 were African-Americans. That is an increase of nearly 11% since 2016. 2018 saw a 4% rise in opioid deaths among Blacks. At the same time, reported deaths within the white community decreased by 17%. Why would the mortality rate increase in one community and decrease in another?
Henry Dondle is a recovering addict and a native of Chicago’s Southside. Dondle says the increase of opioid-related deaths in the Black community is due to a younger generation. “These young kids don’t know what they’re getting themselves into,” says Dondle. “They think it’s cool to pop pills, but then your body gets used to it. Your body needs it. You start having cold sweats. You are not able to sleep or function without it. The stuff turns you into a junkie.”
Henry Dondle began using the prescription pill Percocet for enjoyment. However, the pleasure he found in using Percocet became an addiction that led to an overdose in 2018. Dondle ingested Percocet laced with fentanyl. Like heroin, fentanyl acts on the brain and the central nervous system of the body.
“One day, I thought I was taking a Percocet,” Dondle explains. “And at first, I felt ok, but then I blacked out and woke up in an ambulance.” Henry Dondle’s addiction nearly cost him his life. Dondle’s girlfriend found him laid out on the bathroom floor, unresponsive. While Dondle survived his encounter with death, the Cook County Department of Public Health’s yearly opioid epidemic report shows that 60% of all fatal opioid overdoses are caused by fentanyl. Black Chicagoans makeup about a third of the city’s population but account for about 40% of fatal overdoses.
Chicago’s Westside has seen a significant increase in drug overdoses, accounting for 35% of all heroin and opioid hospitalizations in the city. The West Side Heroin and Opioid Task Force, a collective of health care organizations and former users, looks to help reduce the opioid and heroin overdose fatalities on Chicago’s West Side. “We’re out in the community where users are congregating and buying,” says the Co-director Lee Rusch. “We have people that can help users start medicine assistant treatment right away. “We have a team that includes former users that go out and set up tents to train people on naloxone. Naloxone is a nasal spray that will reverse an opioid overdose. It only takes 15 minutes to learn to save someone from an overdose.”
The author of Hidden In Plain Sight: Heroin’s Impact on Chicago West Side, Kathleen Kane-Willis, says, “People seem to understand that heroin is a public health crisis. We do not need more drug arrests. We need more treatment.” She continues, “To lower the overdose rates among African Americans. It’s important that all treatment providers create a naloxone training and dispensing program”.
For Henry Dondle, his journey towards recovery continues. Now living in Atlanta with his wife and children, Dondle enjoys a successful music career. In 2021, he releases an R&B music video called Revival. In his video, Dondle recalls his heavy drug usage and his near-death experience. “I want people to know there are healthier ways to cope with pain and trauma,” says Dondle. “Turning to drugs creates a deeper hole than what’s already there.”
Ali Bouldin is a freelance writer and journalist focusing on Black and Hip-Hop culture with featured articles in multiple publications. Follow his Instagram @Ali.Bouldin.