We are in the midst of what is perhaps the worst national epidemic of our time. Seventy eight Americans die every day from opioid overdoses, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, many of whom become addicted through no fault of their own when they are over-prescribed pain medication.
There has been a 200 percent increase in the rate of opioid overdose deaths since 2000, with 18,893 such deaths reported in 2014.
We now know that Prince suffered from severe hip pain and likely became addicted to the drug fentanyl, an opioid 30-50 times more potent than heroin and 50-100 times more potent than morphine. This is unfortunately a high-profile example of how addiction begins for tens of thousands of people around the world, of all ages, races and backgrounds.
Synthetic opioid overdoses such as fentanyl killed 5,500 Americans in 2014, an 80 percent increase over numbers reported the previous year.
Many people still mistakenly believe drug addiction only happens to a certain type of person. Perhaps you’re picturing them in your head, now: homeless, indigent, perhaps even criminal — did I come close? While it’s true these members of our society exhibit their share of drug and alcohol dependency (for a variety of reasons I won’t explore here), the fact is addiction can — and does — happen to many others in our communities that you might not expect: doctors, lawyers, teachers, soccer moms, police officers and, yes, even 12-year-old kids. (In my opinion, there is never a reason to prescribe oxycodone to a teenager with a sports injury).
For the 1.9 million Americans grappling with prescription pain medication dependency, life as they know it ended the day a drug took over their lives. What makes it even more heartbreaking is that, in many of these cases, it wasn’t even a conscious choice.
According to a 2016 report from the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), 259 million opioid prescriptions were written in 2012, more than enough to provide every U.S. adult their own bottle of pills. On top of that, four in five new heroin users started out misusing prescription painkillers and switched because opioids are more expensive and harder to obtain, consequently quadrupling the heroin overdose death rate between 2000 and 2013. Many of these addicts are adolescents and women.
Do you still doubt we’re dealing with an epidemic here?
The difference is, if this country were suddenly struck by a virus killing thousands of people annually, we would take action. The government would throw money at it. Public discourse would fixate on solving the issue. The opioid epidemic is upon us, and the youngest citizens are among those dying from it. What are we going to do about it?
1. Admit addiction is a Disease
The first step is once and for all accepting the fact that addiction is a disease. Nobody wants the horror that comes with addiction, and most desperately want help. Don’t treat these people as if they were a lost cause. We must be inclusive, let them know we do care and offer our help.
2. Support treatment centers
Millions in our society are in long-term recovery and leading very productive lives. It takes a combination of real, lifelong addiction treatment programs and the continued support of families and the community for those struggling with opioid addiction to assimilate back into society. To help the millions of your friends and neighbors battling to take their lives back from addiction, visit the American Association for the Treatment of Opioid Dependence website for information on how you can help expand access to treatment or give to nonprofits like Facing Addiction.
3. Enforce better prescription guidelines
Though the CDC recently released new medical guidelines about when and how much opioid medication to prescribe for chronic pain, there are still no guidelines for prescribing opioids for acute pain (think cancer vs. a broken arm). Sales of prescription opioids in the U.S. nearly quadrupled from 1999 to 2014, according to the CDC, without a corresponding change in the amount of pain reported by patients. It’s time to stop the runaway train that is overprescription of opioid medications.
4. Educate younger generations
The “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign of the 1980’s was totally unrealistic and ineffective. Now we have to step it up to save the next generation from becoming one of the statistics I mentioned above. In 2014, 467,000 adolescents were current nonmedical users of pain relievers, 168,000 of whom were addicted to prescription pain relievers. For many young people, the addiction to opioids starts when they receive extra pills from a friend or family member, or find them in an unguarded medicine cabinet. We have to address this problem before it begins, with effective education about the dangers of abusing prescription pills.
5. Demand change
Addiction doesn’t just happen to nameless, faceless people – it can happen to your mother, your pastor, your child’s classmates, and even your favorite artist. The only way we will meaningfully reverse the dangerous trend of addiction in this country is to stand together and demand change from Congress and the medical community by targeting the overprescription of opioids. Contact your elected officials and hold them accountable. Please don’t let the thousands of people who died from opioid overdoses last year be in vain.
Michael Dadashi is the founder and CEO of Infinite Recovery, an Austin, Texas-based addiction rehabilitation center, as well as the founder and company director of a multi-million dollar electronics recycling and resale business, MHD Enterprises. He serves on the board of the national non-profit, Facing Addiction, and recently launched HeartWater, a platform designed to quench a universal thirst for authenticity and hope through powerful stories of all-inclusive recovery.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.