Understanding the Opioid Crisis

Several months ago I was browsing through the local news magazine, Hometown News, and I came across an article with haneously false information about the opioid crisis and addiction.  I became so frustrated by the misleading information being spread to people in my community that I wrote a response.  I submitted it to the paper, and they rejected the submission and basically told me to go f* myself.  So at this point, I think my article still needs a home and without further adieu…


One of today’s most prominent issues permeating politics, local and national news, and the homes of caring families across the nation is the current opioid epidemic. Unfortunately, this issue is widely misunderstood and the internet is rife with false information.  Although we are a county in crisis, losing tens of thousands of lives annually, the most important fact to disseminate is that there is hope in recovery.

To increase understanding of this societal problem, we must first look into the phrase itself—“Opioid Epidemic”.  Opioids are substances that include nefarious drugs like heroin and fentanyl, and also less conspicuous substances that can be found right in your medicine cabinet, such as oxycodone or  Roxicet.  An epidemic is defined as “a temporary prevalence of a disease” and in order to grasp the nature of this definition, it is important to first understand the ways in which addiction, or substance use disorder as it’s clinically defined, is a disease.  

Substance use disorder is a disease that impacts the way a person’s brain functions on a core, primal level.  It creates chemical and structural changes to areas of the brain, visible in an MRI, including the ventral tegmental area and nucleus accumbens.  Over time, an addicted person ceases to feel pleasure from drug use, and is instead driven by primitive, automatic urges beginning deep inside these brain centers.  Decades of research by leading scientists across the world have confirmed these changes that define substance use disorder as a disease.

There are numerous reasons why a person may begin using drugs; young people may feel curiosity or peer pressure, and others seek to numb discomfort from troubling or traumatic experiences, such as abuse or loss of loved ones, or to cope with underlying mental illness.  It is important to distinguish between casual/recreational drug use and addiction, because addiction is the point at which an individual’s ability to choose and control their actions becomes overridden by underlying urges that occur after these structural brain-changes take place.

Many people still question the labeling of today’s opioid use as an “epidemic” since people have used drugs all throughout modern history.  Opioid use is at an all-time high, and in recent years has skyrocketed at an alarming rate.  According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, annual overdose death rates have increased fivefold from 2000 to 2015, and these statistics continue to increase rapidly, leading to epidemic proportions.  To put the numbers into perspective, in the United States there were less than 500 accidental firearm-related deaths in 2015, and over 52,000 accidental drug overdose deaths that same year.

Although substance use disorder is a chronic condition that cannot be cured, there is hope for people to manage their illness and recover.  For nearly 100 years, millions of alcoholics and addicts have experienced healing and sustained recovery through self-help or mutual-aid groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous.  These groups can be found in community centers and church basements throughout the entire country and across the world.  Newcomers can receive guidance and support from others who have had decades free from drug use.  Membership is free, and people afflicted with the disease of addiction can congregate every single night to share experiences, strength, and hope to navigate the difficulties they face with substance use disorders.

Individuals may experience fluctuating motivation to follow the program and sustain their recovery.  With that in mind, relapse or returning to drug use, is common along their journey.  Once again it is key to maintain faith that any individual can recover, even after multiple relapses.  Many individuals enter rehabs or treatment centers in order to gain the knowledge and skills necessary to live a healthy, productive life in spite of their disease.  Evidence-based programs provide very effective strategies to help motivate individuals and perpetuate the changes needed for recovery.  Many individuals can access these services with no personal cost through county and state grants.

Furthermore, new pieces of legislation have recently been put in place to provide funding for treatment, and many government programs are shown to be highly successful.  Drug Court is one example of the criminal justice system’s involvement in addiction.  It is a program that facilitates non-violent offenders to obtain the treatment needed for ongoing recovery and holds individuals accountable for their actions while providing years of support.  Drug Court has shown to keep crime recidivism rates as low as 16% and can save taxpayers over $12,000 per participant.  And that is just one example of positive steps society can take toward ending this epidemic and ultimately saving lives.

Education and prevention are also valuable resources in the fight against addiction.  From educating children regarding the dangers of experimenting with drugs and alcohol, to furthering one’s knowledge of medications prescribed by their doctors, people who have an appropriate understanding of how these drugs can impact their lives and how their use can develop into a disorder is proven to decrease the chances of developing addiction.

Here are some fundamental facts about addiction:

  • Addiction is a chronic disease characterized by compulsive behavior which requires ongoing monitoring rather than a one-time “cure”
  • Addiction itself is NOT a “moral weakness” or a personal choice once changes have taken place inside the brain
  • Individuals with addiction need to take responsibility and  personal accountability to participate in an ongoing program of recovery and sustain lifestyle changes
  • Individuals and families can empower one another and create meaningful changes in the lives of an addicted person to overcome the compulsions associated with addiction
  • Addiction commonly occurs with other physical and mental health issues, such as chronic pain or depression
  • Addiction impacts an individual physically, mentally, financially, socially, and often legally

If you or someone you know may have an addiction problem, it is recommended to:

  • Seek support through mutual aid groups, such as Narcotics Anonymous for addicts and Nar-Anon for family members;
  • Seek professional treatment through withdrawal management, rehabilitation programs, medical doctors, and/or mental health professionals; and
  • Get education on drug and alcohol use, prescriptions from your doctor, substance use disorders, and mental illness

The use of drugs and alcohol has existed throughout most of American history, and sadly it will continue to do so.  Prevention is key to discourage individuals from experimenting in the first place, and treatment is helpful to those who already suffer from addiction.  It is important to remember the message of hope, that recovery is possible for anyone and everyone who is willing to ask for help.

Nicole J. Rossetti, MSW, LSW Columbia University and Primary Counselor at Turning Point, Inc.

Firearm death statistic: https://gun-control.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=006094

Overdose death statistic: https://www.asam.org/docs/default-source/advocacy/opioid-addiction-disease-facts-figures.pdf

Drug Court statistics: https://www.nadcp.org/sites/default/files/nadcp/Facts%20on%20Drug%20Courts%20.pdf

photo credit: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/the-opioid-epidemic-how-big-pharma-and-congress-created_us_59e4e02ee4b003f928d5e8bf

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