How we end the opioid epidemic

Eliminate the stigma, treat the person

IT’S DIFFICULT TO WATCH OR READ the news without seeing another family torn apart by the opioid crisis. The epidemic is so widespread that it’s been declared a national public health emergency – and Massachusetts is on the forefront in many ways. 

In the last few weeks, we’ve seen countless examples of how opioids can affect anyone and everyone, regardless of age, economic status, race, class, sexual orientation, or gender. The fact is, addiction knows no bounds. Addiction is devastating to individuals and families from all walks of life. 

The impact is profound. According to a recent survey conducted by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, one in four Massachusetts residents have lost a family member or friend to the opioid epidemic. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health recently reported there were an estimated 2,000 deaths in 2017 alone as a result of the crisis. 

But how did we get here? How have opioids taken over our lives and our communities in such a tragic way?

Doctors often prescribe opioids to manage pain and aid in the recovery process following surgery or an acute injury. Unfortunately, while these medications can do just that, they can also create a dependence that is not easily broken – especially if they are overprescribed or used in ways that were not intended. 

The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that roughly 21 to 29 percent of patients prescribed opioids for chronic pain misuse them, and between 8 to 12 percent develop an actual opioid use disorder. In addition, young children and the elderly can accidentally access leftover opioids kept in the house, resulting in an unintentional overdose or initiation of drug use and abuse. And then there are teenagers, some of whom think that just because opioids are a prescription medication that they are safer than other typical “illegal drugs.”                                                                                                                                                 

The United States is one of only two countries in the world where branded prescription medications are allowed to be advertised by pharmaceutical companies. This makes it much easier for those who are heavily influenced by the media, especially young people, to gain more exposure to opioids without proper education on the dangers of these drugs. 

People who experience any type of traumatic life event – the death of a loved one, losing one’s job, or divorce – can initially turn to a substance to dull the pain and cope with the stress. This one painful event can in turn lead to a continuous cycle of abuse. It can then be embarrassing for that person to talk to their loved ones and to seek help. 

So, what can we do? 

Everyone’s struggle is different, but there are solutions and treatment does work. We have to make sure that individuals wrestling with the disease of addiction – no matter who they are or where they come from – know where to go and how to get help. We have to provide families with the tools and resources they need to help support their loved ones as they transition to a life of recovery. And we have to work together – at home and in the community – to help eliminate the stigma around addiction and encourage those struggling with substance use disorder to seek help before it’s too late.

Dr. Deni Carise is the chief scientific officer at Recovery Centers of America. Based in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, Recovery Centers of America provides substance abuse education and treatment throughout Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Maryland. The company operates two facilities in Massachusetts, one in Danvers and one in Westminster.