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The Opioid Epidemic

Updated: Mar 15

This paper explores the Opioid Epidemic in America, the causes, statistics, treatment and what can be done to combat the crisis.


Ever wondered why there’s an epidemic crisis in the U.S.? Well, we can attribute the cause to the unauthorized making and smuggling of opioids into America. The United States government traces the origin of such drug trafficking, especially for the opioid fentanyl, back to countries such as China, India, and Mexico. But not all opioids are smuggled. Opioids that are prescribed for pain management, such as methadone, oxycodone, hydrocodone, and morphine, are addictive drugs and are reported to be stronger and more powerful than heroin - another opioid, which can also result in drug dependency.


The Mayo Clinic’s website explains why these opioids are so addictive. Such prescription drugs cause the release of “endorphins,” or neurotransmitters that give a person pleasure, turning their attention away from pain. This is similar to what dopamine does, which also acts as a reward system in the brain but serves a different function.


Statistics show that when abused repeatedly, over time, opioids can slow the heart rate and the function of breathing. According to a 2017 report from SAMHSA’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health, over 10 million within the U.S. were revealed to have misused opioids. Alarmingly, among the thousands who've used heroin and fentanyl within that same year, were many pre-adolescents. Research has also revealed that within a 2-decade time frame (between 1999-2020), opioid overdoses have claimed the lives of over half a million.


Depression and childhood trauma are among the factors that can lead to opioid misuse, according to Healthline. People who are already struggling with depression are over 3.5 times more likely to abuse the substance. However, if one tries to limit the dosage or stop completely, withdrawal symptoms, such as restlessness, vomiting, anxiety, and trembling may occur. Fortunately, there is treatment available - among them being behavioral therapy - that can assist a person on the road to recovery.


While there are programs in place that are combating the opioid crisis that has swept North America, it is apparent that much more needs to be done to reduce the mortality rate. This includes the availability of resources in both rural and urban neighborhoods to let people know that such programs exist. Besides the hundreds of methadone clinics put in place to help with addiction, would need to increase the number of prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMP), which administer help professionals administer help quickly by allowing them to consult with PDMP databases to determine who is at risk for opioid-related health problems. 


Attempts to grapple with the opioid crisis face many challenges, such as the lack of training and research in the treatment of substance use disorders (SUDs) for opioid abuse. Another challenge is that professionals have to walk a thin line between safeguarding a patient’s personal information and disclosing private records. Sometimes, the obligation to maintain a patient's trust runs into conflict with promoting their health. 


Another challenge to the opioid epidemic is stigmatization. We must realize that opioid misuse is not a characteristic flaw but rather an illness, which explains the reluctance of many to seek help. Thus, discussions should go beyond clinic settings and into communities - both in urban and rural areas - concerning the need to detach the stigmatization associated with SUD. Evidently, there’s also the high cost of care and the inadequacy of SUD screenings in primary care environments so there should be a variety, especially for the low-income and poor, so that all can benefit from both quality and affordable treatment for SUDs.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author.


Sources


Drug Enforcement Authorization. “Fentanyl Flow to the United States.” DEA Intelligence Report, January 2020, https://www.dea.gov/sites/default/files/2020-03/DEA_GOV_DIR-008-20%20Fentanyl%20Flow%20in%20the%20United%20States_0.pdf


McIver, J Stephen. “Seeking Solutions to the Opioid Crisis.” P & T : a peer-reviewed journal for formulary management vol. 42,7 (2017): 478.


Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US) and Office of the Surgeon General (US). Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General's Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health. US Department of Health and Human Services, November 2016.


“Understanding the Opioid Overdose Epidemic.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, June 2022. https://www.cdc.gov/opioids/basics/epidemic.html


Watson, Stephanie. “Mental Health and Opioid Use Disorder: How Are They Connected?” Healthline, 30 Sept. 2021, https://www.healthline.com/health/opioid-withdrawal/mental-health-connection

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