Americans are now more likely to die from opioid overdose than in a car accident. 130 Americans die each day from opioid-related overdose.
The consequences of the Opioid Epidemic continue to unfurl around us. As the affects of these drugs continue to seep into cities and rural areas alike, there has been a tremendous push to spread awareness. The statistics are staggering. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, 11.4 million people misused prescription opioids in 2017. With over 130 individuals dying from opioid-related overdose per day, 2017 saw the deaths of 47,600 people.
These people are our fathers, our daughters, our neighbors, our teachers, the random passerby on the street, and our friends. The false narrative that those affected are weak, lazy, or uneducated does not apply in many cases. This epidemic has reached out and taken hold of hardworking family men, ailing elders who strive to live a fulfilling life and hold their grandchildren, and youthful adolescents that do not see the harm in experimentation. “This problem of addiction truly does start in the medicine cabinet,” Russ Baer, a special agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration, tells PEOPLE. “It starts with the misuse and abuse of prescription opioid painkillers.” (Helling, Steve). People don’t realize how easy it is to become swept up by addiction after a back injury putting up Christmas lights or during the few weeks it takes to heal from a soccer injury. The Opioid Epidemic has touched many on a deeply personal level. A routine procedure with a few days of pain medication can quickly transform into a downward spiral of personal struggle and craving. In his article “The New Drug Crisis: Addiction By Prescription” for TIME Magazine, Jeffrey Kluger states, ” Contrary to stereotype, the people most at risk in this epidemic are not the usual pill-popping suspects–the dorm rats and users of street drugs. Rather, they’re so-called naive users in the 35-to-64 age group–mostly baby boomers, with their aching bodies and their long romance with pharmaceutical chemistry. ‘People with pain complaints get a 30-day prescription for Oxycontin, and it’s like a little opioid starter kit,’ says Barber.” (Kluger, Jeffrey).
A quick education about opioids: Opioids are a class of drugs used to reduce pain. The CDC explains that there are three different types of opioids: prescription opioids, fentanyl, and heroin. According to data from the CDC, of the 70,200 drug overdoses that occurred in 2017, around 68% were opioid related. Fentanyl has been on the rise in the past few years; this drug is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. One of the main issues with fentanyl is in the illegal drug market. Fentanyl is being used as an additive to heroin and/or cocaine (both with and without user’s knowledge) in order to increase the user’s euphoria. The synthetic drug has heroin-like effects that appeal to users, but can have a fatal outcome if consumed in excess.
|Prescription opioids |
can be prescribed by doctors to treat moderate to severe pain, but can also have serious risks and side effects.
Common types are
|Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid pain reliever. |
It is many times more powerful than other
opioids and is
approved for treating severe pain, typically advanced cancer
pain.1 Illegally made
fentanyl has been on
the rise in several
|Heroin is an illegal |
opioid. Heroin use has increased across the U.S. among men and women, most age
groups, and all
We began a dialogue with our community to hear stories from individuals that have been affected by the epidemic. “As a twenty-something, I can no longer count the number of friends that have passed due to accidental overdose on two hands.” Ana* shared, “I spoke with Michael* the day before he passed and a week later I was placing lilies on his casket. I’m tired of watching my friends cry while we mourn.” Our communities are still learning to cope with the unsettling reality that each day as new mothers hold their newborns for the first time, one room over a mother may be saying goodbye to her son. “Opioid abuse represents one of the deadliest, preventable threats to the public’s health in the United States over the last two decades… They die at home, at work, in shops, parks, and cars, and on the streets in urban and rural settings. (8) Death can come suddenly through single uses of highly potent, chemically engineered fentanyl, or as a result of long-term addictive behaviors that reach a climactic end” (Redefining Public Health Emergencies: The Opioid Epidemic).
Due to the common nature of opioid prescriptions, addiction can often be an unintended side effect of chronic pain or a minor injury. These medications are not difficult to come by and are easily abused once a dependence has formed. Greg* shared, “I used to blame my sports injuries. It began with a torn ACL and transformed into an insatiable craving after countless doctors visits. These prescription-happy physicians wouldn’t bat an eye and prescribe pain medication after pain medication in order to treat my chronic pain. It took years of therapy to recover from the damage these pills wreaked on my life.”
Taking a step back to look at the risk factors, everyone is at stake. New mothers recovering from cesarean sections are prescribed pain medications like Oxycodone and Hydrocodone to deal with the pain during a time they are already sleep-deprived and combating unfamiliar territory. Between the ages of 17 and 25, most adolescents have their wisdom teeth removed and may encounter pain medication for the first time. Opioids affect members of all levels of society and do not discriminate between blue collar and white collar workers, genders, different ethnicities, or age ranges. The CDC shared that “In 2017, there were still almost 58 opioid prescriptions written for every 100 Americans….More than 17% of Americans had at least one opioid prescription filled, with an average of 3.4 opioid prescriptions dispensed per patient.” On top of this, the average number of days for these prescriptions rose to a whopping average of 18 days per prescription.
Some populations are higher risk including individuals who have previously suffered from substance abuse issues, have chronic pain, a history of mental illness, live in rural areas, take prescription opioids on a daily or consistent basis, are low income individuals or live in poverty, and those who have struggled with anxiety and depression. Women also show a unique set of risk factors. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, from 1999 to 2016, mortality rates for opioid overdose increased 507% among women compared to 321% among men. Studies show that women are more likely to experience chronic pain than men. Additionally, women are also more likely to be prescribed opioids than their male counterparts and are often given higher doses for longer periods of time.
Doctors have begun to show an acute understanding for the epidemic and are more reluctant to prescribe opioids to patients. They’ve also become more careful about refilling prescriptions or upping the dosage upon request. Once their supply has run out, users often begin to seek out illicit drugs to fill the void their prescription medication left. When users begin to consume heroin, fentanyl, and illegally obtained prescription opioids, there is a higher likelihood of contamination and a lack of consistency with dosage. Jason* shared, “I didn’t care what it was. You stop thinking about your future and the plans you had and you start thinking about how you’re going to get out of bed in the morning. If someone tells you it’s good sh** –if you’re desperate enough — you believe them.”
“81,000 people used heroin for the first time (in 2017)” according to a study completed by the US Department of Health and Human Services. A mother of two reached out to share a few words about the epidemic. Her son was twenty-four when he passed away from a heroin overdose. “Our children are supposed to bury us, not the other way around. Knowing that he was alone with no one to help him when he died breaks my heart more than anything, ” she said, “We were completely unaware of the turmoil my son was experiencing in his life. He went to college, had a girlfriend, kept a job… I wish there were more resources available to help those that are struggling.” 15,482 heroin related deaths were recorded in 2017 with more than 886,000 individuals using in the United States (US Department of Health and Human Services).
Opioid related health care costs are also on the rise. As our emergency providers, hospitals, and physicians struggle to keep their heads above water with the influx of opioid related issues, there is a huge need for change. “Only about 10 percent of adults with substance abuse disorders receive any type of specialty treatment because of insurance coverage limits and shortages of addiction treatment providers and facilities. (28) Hospitals have experienced dramatic increases in opioid-related inpatient stays and emergency department visits across all age groups.
(33)” (Redefining Public Health Emergencies: The Opioid Epidemic). With high out of pocket costs for drug rehabilitation programs and detoxing, it’s difficult for users to get the help they need. Oftentimes rehabilitation programs will accept insurance (including private insurance, state-funded health insurance, Medicaid, and Medicare), however those without insurance can expect a hefty fee for acceptance into the program. Individuals may find decent 30-day rehabilitation programs for $6,000. Well-known treatment centers often cost upwards of $20,000 for a 30-day program. If longer care is needed, individuals looking at 60 to 90 day programs can expect to pay $12,000 to $60,000 (Addiction Center). When you factor in the users that also have mental health issues, the number of dual-diagnosis facilities with a psychiatrist onsite are extremely limited and can cost a fortune. Another huge factor is considering how many of those affected individuals actually have insurance.
Out of desperation, communities are looking for their own solutions to aid the epidemic. There’s been a push in several large cities for Safe Injection Sites. They are a controversial way to curb accidental overdose and death. The movement has gained traction in cities like Philadelphia and Seattle as deaths continue to skyrocket. The general concept: a supervised and sterile environment for individuals to use illicit drugs. A specially trained staff equipped with naloxone and knowledge on overdosing is standing by on site in case something goes wrong. These locations link users to drug rehabilitation programs and addiction treatment upon request. While many stand in opposition, individuals like Philadelphia’s Health Commissioner, Thomas Farley, believe it could lead to change or provide some relief. In an interview with NPR, Farley said, “Nobody likes the idea of watching someone who is addicted just inject drugs. We want to get all of those people into treatment, but we all have to recognize that, despite all of our efforts, many people are not going to drug treatment.” Unique solutions continue to surface as individuals across the country fight to free their communities from this windswept issue.
Raising awareness about the Opioid Epidemic is important when it comes to change. Resources like the National Helpline are great to share with friends and loved ones who are struggling with addiction. The National Helpline shares that “SAMHSA’s National Helpline is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders.” SAMHSA’s National Helpline – 1-800-662-HELP (4357). They can provide guidance and connect you and loved ones with local assistance and programs. It’s time to make a change!
*Please note that names were changed for privacy*
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