Understanding America’s Drug Overdose Epidemic

Substance Abuse Counseling

It is obvious to anyone paying attention that the United States has a major problem with drug addiction and overdose. Nearly half a million American lives were lost to drug overdose between 2000 and 2014.

Our government’s decades-long war on drugs notwithstanding, the statistics are clear: according to the Centers for Disease Control, the number of overdose deaths from opioids alone has quadrupled since 1999 and shown a fourteen percent increase between 2013 and 2014.1

While addiction treatment centers are a godsend for those in the clutches of addiction, far too many people’s lives spiral out of control before they are ever able to seek treatment. It’s important to gain a fuller understanding of addiction and accidental overdose, as well as its victims and causes, in order to effectively combat its horrifying impact.

Opioids: Public Enemy Number One

In 2015, over fifty thousand people in the United States died from drug related overdoses – that’s more than any other year since we started keeping track, and the numbers are on the rise. It’s a problem that spans gender, race, creed, and age – an indiscriminant killer whose impact is felt across all walks of life.

Of those fifty thousand overdoses, more than thirty two thousand involved the use of opioids.2

Opioids, a family of drugs which includes legally prescribed painkillers like oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, and the synthetic opioid fentanyl, as well as illicit drugs like heroin, are clearly the driving force behind this terrifying uptick in drug deaths.

Heroin, almost universally recognized as one of the most dangerous and most addictive drugs in existence, is on a major upswing in the United States. According to DEA statistics, the amount of heroin seized at the country’s southwest border more than quadrupled from five hundred kilograms per year in the early 2000s to over two thousand kilograms in 2013. Heroin addiction is on the rise, particularly among people 18 to 25 years of age, and with the increased demand comes a ready supply.

But that’s just the adults; a 2005 survey showed that nearly four and a half million US teenagers between the ages of 12 and 17 admitted to abusing prescription painkillers.3 Opioid abuse is everyone’s problem, and it’s not going away.

Veterans are another group at serious risk for opioid addiction and overdose. About sixty percent of all veterans returning from deployment in active zones like the Middle East suffer from chronic pain, double the percentage of the general American population. Helping these returning heroes manage their pain is crucial for mental health and well-being, but until recently VA hospitals were exclusively prescribing opioids to this end.

According to a 2011 study, veterans are twice as likely to die from opioid overdose as civilians.4

Substance abuse programs like the twenty-four hour inpatient treatment care at Retreat Premier Addiction Treatment Centers are designed specifically to help those with out of control opioid habits to rid themselves from their abusive tendencies. Sometimes, the best treatment is round-the-clock immersion in a caring, sheltered, professional medical environment, with trained professionals on hand to monitor and track recovery.

However, the first step before seeking treatment is recognizing the problem and sadly, many Americans never get that far.

Opioid Addiction Could Happen to Anyone

Preconceived notions about addicts and drug addiction run rampant in our popular culture. For many, just the words ‘drug addict’ summon to mind readily available imagery of the shambling, shaking waif who will do anything to find their next fix – sleeping on the streets or in cars, stealing anything that’s not bolted down for drug money, and shooting up in smoky dens of depravity with other similarly afflicted criminals.

While addiction does play a major factor in homelessness and despondency, the grim reality of opioid addiction and overdose couldn’t be more different from the stereotype. In fact, two thirds of the aforementioned deaths from opioid overdoses were the result of prescription painkiller abuse.

According to the CDC, sales of prescription opioids in the US have quadrupled along with overdoses since 1999, though the amount of pain reported to doctors on the whole has not shown any significant change. We’re buying more painkillers to manage the same amount of pain, which means for many Americans the path to overdose begins with a legitimate prescription from a medical professional.

You throw your back out at work, or get whiplash in a car accident, or experience lingering pain following surgery; it could be almost anything. You go to the doctor, get a prescription for hydrocodone or codeine to help manage the pain, and take it as directed.

Inpatient Treatment Care

But throughout the course of the prescription, you find yourself developing a tolerance – you need more than prescribed to get the same amount of relief. This is the nature of opioids, and how they interact with our brain chemistry.

So you take a little more, and a little more. After all, you’ve got a life, a job, bills to pay, responsibilities to see through – you can’t let pain get in the way of taking care of your family or following through on commitments. You need relief from your very real pain in order to function, and you can only get it by taking a little more than directed.

Then, when the prescription runs out, you’re surprised to find yourself suffering the symptoms of withdrawal – nausea, vomiting, dizziness, increased sensitivity to pain, and many other possible afflictions. You’re addicted, and now more than ever you need a steady flow of opioids to get through the day. It’s that easy, and it could happen to anyone.

Heroin and Fentanyl: The Logical Next Step

When addicts can’t get opioids through a prescription, they are much more likely to turn to the next best thing available: heroin. As many as three out of four recent new heroin users report abusing prescription opioids prior to heroin, which means that seventy five percent of the people trying heroin for the first time started with a prescription.

Due to increased demand and import, heroin is readily available throughout the United States, and it’s much cheaper and stronger than prescription painkillers. Without the pre-designated dosage amounts of prescription painkillers, which usually come in clearly labeled pill form, addicts who turn to heroin are left to their own devices when it comes to measuring dosages.

This, along with potential impurities as heroin is cut with substances like lidocaine, crack-cocaine, and fentanyl to keep costs down, puts heroin addicts at great risk of overdose.

In addition to heroin, synthetic opioids like fentanyl which are produced illegally and marketed to the same users are massively on the rise. According to the CDC, synthetic opioids are one of the main factors in the swell of drug overdoses in the US. Many fentanyl deaths involve the drug being mixed with heroin and/or cocaine, as it is between fifty and one hundred times stronger than morphine and relatively easy to produce in illicit circumstances.

Fentanyl deaths nearly doubled between 2014 and 2015, jumping from 5,544 to 9,580 overdose casualties.

Addiction Treatment Saves Lives

The numbers are clear across the board: deaths from opioid overdoses increase at roughly the same rate as they are prescribed and sold. This is bad news for Americans, as both legal and illicit opioid use is on the rise and the street-level demand for drugs like heroin and illegally produced fentanyl are at an all time high.

Because of the slippery slope nature of opioid addiction, many people put off seeking help or simply won’t acknowledge that they have a problem until it’s too late. Even when confronted with the ugly realities of opioid addiction with its high likelihood of overdose, some will scorn drug rehabilitation for fear of some misplaced social stigma.

Due to the nature of opioids and how they impact our brain chemistry, it is very difficult to overcome addiction without professional assistance.

Substance Abuse Counseling

Retreat Premier Addiction Treatment Centers in Florida and Pennsylvania provide twenty-four hour supervised inpatient detox, as well as a broad range of drug and alcohol addiction programming geared toward making sure their patients don’t become another overdose statistic. A staff of qualified addiction recovery specialists is available round the clock to field your phone calls and answer questions, and is there to help make the admission process as easy as possible.

If someone you know is suffering from drug addiction, particularly to heroin or prescription opioids, it’s of vital importance to talk to them about substance abuse counseling and treatment by a medical professional as soon as possible.

1https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2015/p1218-drug-overdose.html

2http://www.asam.org/docs/default-source/advocacy/opioid-addiction-disease-facts-figures.pdf

3http://www.drugfreeworld.org/drugfacts/prescription/abuse-international-statistics.html

4http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/veterans-face-greater-risks-amid-opioid-crisis/