Drug use in the Black community is reaching astronomical levels causing many to lose their lives. However, experts say that while Black people are more likely to seek treatment for substance abuse, racial barriers are preventing them from actually getting it.

The drug-related deaths of actor Michael K. Willaims earlier this month and rapper DMX in April are bringing attention to the issue of drug addiction in Black community. According to the Gateway Foundation, between 2015 and 2016, the rate of drug overdose deaths increased by 40% among African Americans. From 2014 to 2017, death rates from synthetic opioid use increased by 818% among African Americans, which was a higher increase than for any other racial group.

Tens of thousands of American lives end prematurely every year due to opioid overdoses. Experts say the increasing availability of fentanyl is causing higher rates of overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids.

Dr. Lyndon J. Aguiar, clinical director at Williamsville Wellness, told the AmNews that treatment records show a much higher rate of relapse for his patients compared to any time in the history of his facility.

“When society views individuals with addiction and mental illness as defective, damaged, and unworthy of support and care,” Aguiar said. “People think that only certain people can become addicted or develop mental health problems. Of course, there can be powerful genetic and early childhood predictors of addiction and mental illness, but to some extent, these conditions can affect anyone under the right conditions.”

Addiction, Aguiar said, is often attached to identity, loss, guilt, shame, belongingness, and unworthiness. Someone with an addiction is likely to use coping skills such as alcohol, substance abuse, gambling, self-destructive or acting out behaviors as a temporary escape or distraction from painful emotions.

While the simple solution might be treatment, racism is stopping people seeking help from getting past the door. According to Dr. Nzinga Harrison, co-founder and chief medical officer of Eleanor Health, Black people fall out of substance use disorder treatment up to five times more prematurely than whites. A Black person needing treatment for opioid use disorder is 35 times less likely to get a prescription for the dependency treatment drug Suboxone.

“Even when we do get access to treatment, it’s not quite the standard of care,” Harrison told the AmNews. “There are a lot of structural barriers that are leading to disproportionate impacts of substance use disorders on Black folks and one of them, for the opioid epidemic, is seeing the white face in the media, because it makes you think it’s not happening to us when it’s disproportionate to us.”

The toxic mixture of the COVID-19 pandemic, drug use, mental health and racism is having an adverse impact on the Black community physiologically and psychologically, Harrison says. She adds that substance abuse disorders are mental health disorders.

“Physiologically, they are the same,” she said. “What we know is 80% of people that seek treatment for substance use disorder have another mental health disorder, typically depression anxiety or a history of trauma. COVID has been a collective trauma and disproportionately affected Black and Brown communities. One of the ways we cope is with substances. We have been damaged by this pandemic.”

The answer for substance abuse treatment when it comes to African Americans is formula Harrison calls “bio-psycho-social-cultural-politically-informed” treatment. The formula consists of detox, FDA-approved medication, managing other physical conditions, addressing trauma, depression and anxiety, establishing a support system and being able to discuss racism and oppression.