It’s been all over the news in recent years – how the opioid epidemic is affecting the United States – stories of addiction, overdoses, and deaths related to both prescription and illicit opioid drugs. It isn’t uncommon these days to see pictures on news sites of, for example, mothers and fathers unconscious in their car’s driver’s seats, as their children cry while buckled into car seats behind them. For most people, this scenario is inconceivable, and they cannot understand how those parents put drug use ahead of taking care of their children. But in reality, it’s likely that by the time those parents reached that point, they had very little control over the choices they made. They were addicted, and they had become part of the statistics that detail the opioid epidemic that is flourishing in every state in the country. Most times, it is only through drug rehab and aftercare drug treatment that they are able to get clean and return to normal life.
For many, the idea that perfectly upstanding citizens can become addicted to drugs is an implausible concept. The stereotypical addict, often portrayed as such in the media, is someone who lacks willpower, has no redeeming character traits, and who lacks any form of morality – the strung-out homeless person who sleeps under an overpass and begs for money to get more drugs. The truth is that addiction can strike anyone, anywhere, people from all walks of life struggle with it. It doesn’t discriminate based on gender, race, religion, economic standing, or any other individual distinctions. And it isn’t a moral failing. In fact, many of the individuals who become addicted to opioids, began their road to addiction under legitimate, doctor-supervised circumstances only to end up needing treatment for heroin addiction somewhere down the line.
What began as a way to provide patients with pain relief from acute pain, like that following surgery, or chronic pain, like that of ongoing back pain, has quickly become an epidemic of drug abuse, addiction, and death. Opioids like fentanyl and OxyContin have made the most innocent of surgical procedures and pain management into the foundation for the progressive condition of drug addiction. When patients who have been prescribed opioids for pain run out of their medication and doctors refuse to refill their prescriptions, it is often already too late, they are addicted and feel that they have to find more.
While some people who have become addicted to opioid painkillers recognize that they have a problem and seek help to begin recovery, others are forced to turn to illicit opioids like heroin and fentanyl to satisfy their addiction. It is often said in recovery circles that heroin addicts don’t usually make it very long in active addiction – they either get help in a heroin addiction treatment center, or they die. Unfortunately, there are more and more people who are overdosing and dying from this type of addiction.
How Serious Is the Opioid Epidemic?
There were more deaths from drug overdoses in 2017 than in any other year previously at over 72,000 fatalities. More than 68 percent of those deaths involved opioid drugs. In the fifteen years from 2002 to 2017, the number of deaths from prescription and illicit opioids went from just over 10,000 per year to more than 49,000 per year. That means that the death rate among opioid users more than quadrupled in that time. Each and every day, the lives of 130 Americans are claimed due to opioid overdose.
Perhaps even more disturbing is the trend of heroin use among 25-44-year olds. From 2002 until the present, past month use of heroin, past year use of heroin, and overall heroin addiction have increased among this group. The number of new heroin users within the last year is also increased, with nine out of ten of those users having also used at least one other drug. Among those new users, 75 percent reported using prescription opioids prior to using heroin. Additionally, it reported that the demographic groups that had historically had lower rates of heroin addiction (women, the privately insured, and those with higher incomes) have seen some of the greatest increases in use.
How Did the Drug Epidemic Get So Bad?
Drug epidemics are not strangers to the U.S. Beginning in the 1800s, the epidemic involved the drug opium. It was used to help those who suffered from sleep problems or chronic pain and was contained in products like laudanum. However, it was also used recreationally for its euphoric effects. Some smoked opium in “opium dens” and were known as “opium fiends.”
Other drug epidemics in history included those to cocaine and heroin, which were developed by Merck and Bayer, respectively. They were prescribed for various conditions and ailments and were offered to the public in several in over-the-counter (OTC) products, without prescription. By the early 1900s, cocaine use shifted from a consumer fad into an epidemic, which led to its (and heroin’s) removal from OTC products.
The mid-1900s saw amphetamines in the spotlight. Again, marketed by pharmaceutical companies, their use really took off in the 1950s, causing many people to become addicted to them. Later, in the late 1970s, cocaine made a comeback and quickly became an epidemic in its crack form in the 1980s. The mid-1990s was the beginning of our current epidemic when opioids began being prescribed for pain.
The current opioid epidemic cannot be blamed on illegal drugs like heroin and other street drugs. Like other epidemics, opioid abuse, addiction, and subsequent illegal drug use began in a perfectly legal and above-board way. Doctors were beginning to prescribe opioid medications for both acute and chronic pain, despite the fact that there was very little evidence to support using these opioids for long-term pain, despite the effectiveness of their use for short-term, acute pain.
Drug manufacturers began to market opioid medications as an ideal solution for people with chronic pain issues, and doctors and other prescribers began to use drugs like OxyContin, Percocet, and fentanyl universally for their patients who needed pain management.
The number of prescriptions written for opioid medications boomed over the next decade. People were prescribed opioid drugs for their chronic pain for longer and longer periods of time, and they soon became physically and psychologically dependent on the drugs. Unfortunately, the drugs were not only available to the patients for whom they were prescribed – they were available to any teen that had access to their parents’ medicine cabinet, friends and family with whom the drugs were shared, and illegally on the streets.
More and more people were abusing opioids, suffering from addiction and overdoses, and even dying due to the ease and accessibility to the drugs, whether legally prescribed or obtained illegally.
Finally, officials began to recognize the rise in opioid abuse, addiction, and overdoses, and doctors who prescribe painkillers were put under more scrutiny. They were threatened with discipline including losing their medical licenses and even incarceration if they were found to be prescribing opioids excessively. This new oversight caused forced doctors to stop prescribing opioids so freely, and to review patients’ medical records for indications of past drug abuse before prescribing.
Unfortunately, in many cases, it was already too late and patients (and others) were already addicted. When their doctors would no longer provide them with prescriptions for their painkillers, many patients were forced to turn to less expensive and stronger opioids like heroin and fentanyl.
Although not all people who take opioid painkillers will end up turning to heroin or other illicit opioid use, there are many who do. In a Journal of the American Medical Association study, it’s reported that many prescription painkiller patients had, in fact, moved on to heroin. An analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2015 also found that individuals who become addicted to prescribed opiates are up to 40 times more at risk of becoming addicted to heroin.
Those are frightening statistics, but they shouldn’t lead anyone to believe that the regulation of prescription opioids was a mistake. It is the first step toward wiping out the epidemic that has negatively affected so many lives.
What Has Been Learned from Past Drug Epidemics
As mentioned, there have been many drug epidemics in the past. While they continue to happen, there are some lessons that have been learned from them along the way – mostly these are examples of what doesn’t work in dealing with drug addiction. It’s apparent that arresting drug users and dealers doesn’t really impede the epidemic from continuing to grow. Additionally, ostracizing or shaming individuals who have become addicted to opioids doesn’t work either. In fact, it often keeps those individuals from seeking treatment for heroin addiction.
It seems that battling the opioid crisis must have three parts – prevention of drug fatalities due to overdoses, prevention of new addictions from starting and helping those who are already addicted get the help they need to recover at a heroin rehab.
What is the Solution to the Opioid Epidemic?
Obviously, the solution for those who are currently suffering from heroin addiction, the solution is to help them get into a heroin rehab facility where they can detox from the drug, be educated about addiction, participate in therapy, and learn new coping and life skills that will provide them with the tools they need to successfully recover. Unfortunately, in a 2014 report, it was determined that 89 percent of individuals who meet the criteria for a drug abuse disorder diagnosis did not receive treatment.
That’s a huge number of people who never get into heroin detox centers or other treatment for addiction. There are many factors involved in the situations that contribute to that statistic, including denial on the part of the drug user, not having sufficient health insurance or finances to pay for treatment, and concern about the stigma associated with heroin addiction. Many people suffering from heroin addiction also complained about the accessibility to treatment and long waiting periods for care.
Other solutions, or at least improvements, include:
- Improving the prescription of opioid painkillers in a way that reduces patients’ overall exposure to the drugs, prevent potential abuse, and decrease active addiction.
- Expand access to treatment for those suffering from addiction.
- Increase the access and use of naloxone, an antidote that can reverse opioid overdose.
- Work with state and local public health agencies, law enforcement, and medical examiners to improve the detection of trends regarding illegal opioid use.
- Work to reduce the stigma of addiction with awareness, communication, and education.
Finding the Right Heroin Addiction Treatment
The opioid epidemic is devastating for those who are addicted, their families, and other loved ones. Additionally, the relapse rates for heroin and other opioids is very high, making long-term, intensive treatment at a heroin rehab center necessary in most cases.
However, recovery from opioid addiction is possible for those who are willing to take the first step by seeking treatment in a heroin detox center. Withdrawal from heroin can be very uncomfortable, even painful, and it should be medically-supervised. This allows them to receive medical attention should they need it, and it makes detoxing as comfortable as possible.
The next step is often a residential treatment program at a heroin rehab where patients receive therapy, education, and support for their beginning recovery. Inpatient addiction treatment may be followed by outpatient treatment, in which the individual returns home but continues to go to treatment for several hours on several days during the week.
Lastly, it’s essential that people who have attended heroin addiction treatment continue with aftercare. An aftercare drug treatment program is typically offered by the best heroin rehab centers for those who have completed rehab. It provides continued support and education – both of which are needed for successful recovery.