Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
**It's Fall Fund Drive 2023! Don't forget to Donate!**

Commentary: The Story of One Human

Becca Luna Leibowits
Sarah Leibowits
courtesy photo
Becca Luna Leibowits

The end of this semester marks the completion of my 22nd year of teaching at Western Illinois University. This spring, all of my classes have been online, which in some ways is nice, because of the flexibility it offers everyone involved.

But I must admit I miss the face-to-face interaction and spontaneity of conversations that happen in a traditional classroom setting. Having created a fully online major in Anthropology in 2017, I have had time to think about how I can make online learning more interactive.

One of my most popular courses is an upper division class called From Magic Mushrooms to Big Pharma. The course explores how different cultures the world over utilize plant and nature-based medicines to heal themselves. Towards the end of the semester, we compare the different types of indigenous medical systems to the one we have in the United States. Using a case study approach, we take a deep dive into the US pharmaceutical industry, paying special attention to the opioid epidemic.

This semester, I was honored to have one of my college classmates from Denison University, Sarah Leibowits, zoom into the class to share the story of her daughter Becca’s struggle with addiction and subsequent death from fentanyl poisoning.

Before Sarah talked about her Becca and answered questions, students had consumed a lot of material about the intersectionality between mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder; access to affordable health care; politics; capitalism and opioid addiction.

They knew that Purdue Pharma had aggressively marketed OxyContin, downplaying the drug's addictive nature. The drug was marketed as a safe and effective treatment for chronic pain, with a low risk of addiction. Students knew these claims to be false and demonstrated in short scholarly essays how these statements were not supported by science. We reviewed the numbers, noting that in 2019 alone nearly 50,000 Americans lost their lives as a result of opioid addiction and fentanyl poisoning.

The students got it academically, but what was really missing was hearing the story about one particular human who died as a result of all the variables mentioned above – a mental health disorder, lack of access to medical treatment, economics, etc. Hearing Sarah talk about her daughter and the struggles she encountered as a young human, made the numbers real.

Becca would have turned 25 on May 2nd, but unfortunately, she will never be able to experience being a quarter of a century old. More importantly, the world has been robbed of her potential contributions to humanity.

As our politicians argue whether to raise the debt ceiling or not, let’s consider some of the human causalities that may occur as the Republicans are balking at this move. According to historian Heather Cox Richardson, the Department of Veterans Affair asserts that the House bill will force a 22% cut to the department’s budget, costing 81,000 jobs in health services, reducing outpatient visits for veterans by 30 million, increasing food insecurity for about 1.3 million veterans, and adding 134,000 claims to disability backlogs.

According to the National Institutes of Health 41%, or about 1.7 million veterans, need mental health services. Reducing access to mental health treatment is certain to push some veterans to self-medicate using opioids, potentially leading to early death. Healthcare providers need to have more resources they can offer individuals. Access to mental health services, including therapy and psychiatric care, should be expanded, not reduced.

I am in awe of the strength and love that Sarah demonstrates each and every time she shares Becca’s story. I am sure that hearing her story has saved at least one if not several lives. As Paulo Coelho wrote, “The story of one person is the story of all of humanity.”

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio.

Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.