5 Reasons the Opioid Epidemic is Far from Over
The United States opioid epidemic is a topic of frequent discussion among medical professionals, politicians and the public itself. Opioids, a powerful prescription drug used for pain relief, rose to prevalence in the late 1990s. During this time, pharmaceutical companies had assured the medical community that opioids did not pose a serious risk of addiction to patients, prompting them to write more prescriptions than ever before.
In reality, this assurance could not be farther from the truth and opioids have turned out to be one of the most highly addictive prescriptions available. They are frequently abused because of the pleasurable high that they produce in large doses, and thanks to their strong potency, a patient can develop an opioid dependence even while taking their medication as prescribed. For this reason, millions of people have found themselves addicted to opioids, and the damage has been so significant since the 1990s that opioid misuse has been considered not just a problem, but an epidemic.
To combat this epidemic, government agencies and private organizations have sought to better educate the public on the dangers of opioids and restrict their accessibility. This had appeared to have little effect until 2020 when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released their report on the number of opioid overdose deaths for 2018. For the first time, this number was lower than the previous year, with only 67,000 deaths compared to 70,000 deaths in 2017. Such a revelation has brought a wave of hope that the opioid epidemic is finally coming to an end.
That drop may only be a false victory however, for while the opioid epidemic may seem to be turning in the right direction, it is far from over. There is plenty of work left to be done and it is far too early to begin celebrating. In particular, there are five serious reasons why the battle against opioid abuse still has a long way to go.
1. Opioid Death Rates Are Still High
In 2018, the CDC reported that there were 67,000 deaths from opioid overdoses alone. This amounts to an average of slightly over 20 people dying out of every 100,000 in the United States. While this number dropped since 2017, it was the first and only time in the last two decades. Furthermore, while the reports have not yet been completed, these statistics may have increased again in 2019. Even considering the decline, there were more opioid deaths in 2018 than the number of any peak year for deaths from gun violence, car crashes or HIV/AIDS.
On a day to day level, the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) estimates that more than 130 people die every day from an opioid overdose.
2. Prescription Opioid Accessibility
The United States is prescribing more opioids to patients than any other nation in the world. In 2017, this number reached a record low since 2006 by dropping just below 200 million prescriptions, but even at that rate, opioids are still widely prevalent throughout the country. By breaking this number down, it means that nearly 59 out of every 100 people were prescribed an opioid during the year.
Even with the overall number in decline, this is a significant number of opioids present in the country, and every single one carries the potential for being abused. According to the HHS, each year roughly 2 million of these legal prescription users will begin misusing their opioid for the first time. This reinforces that even when taken legally and as prescribed, an opioid can still easily cause a person to develop a dependence and spiral into a cycle of addiction.
3. Black-Market Opioids
Illegal substances are always much harder to track since they are purchased on the black market and individuals taking them will do anything to avoid being caught. This makes it significantly harder to calculate how many people are abusing opioids.
One of the key components within the opioid epidemic is heroin, which is an illegal semi-synthetic opioid made from morphine. It is extremely potent, and while unlikely to cause addiction after only one use, that first use is already enough to begin changing a person’s brain and putting them at a higher risk for addiction in the future.
Since heroin is illegal, it also lacks regulation and in turn is more dangerous than its prescription opioid counterparts. To make more money, drug dealers frequently cut their heroin with other substances, many of which, like fentanyl, are dangerous on their own already. This, paired with a lack of regulation, means that no two batches of heroin are likely to be the same increasing the chances of overdose and death substantially.
4. Prescription Opioids are a Gateway Drug
Just because the rate of prescription drug abuse decreases, does not mean that these individuals have stopped abusing drugs altogether. With heroin in particular, many users are former prescription opioid misusers who lost access to their prescription and sought out an alternative to feed their cravings. This is because prescription opioids are gateway drugs, which means that their misuse frequently leads to more dangerous drug misuse later in life. An important point to note: prescription opioid deaths may be declining simply because users are switching to alternative substances.
Some of the other common alternatives that people transition to after prescription opioids are fentanyl and methamphetamine. It is worth noting that meth is a stimulant rather than an opioid, but according to Dr. Keith Humphreys of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, “Every opioid epidemic in American history has been followed by a stimulant epidemic.” This means that the United States may simply be swapping one drug epidemic for another.
5. High stress is Becoming More Difficult to Manage
Since 2005, researchers have been reporting an increase in what are known as “deaths of despair,” which are cases where a person dies from drugs, alcohol or suicide with high stress cited as a motivating factor. A panel at Harvard University attributed this primarily to political and economic struggles in United States, as well as a fundamental lack of spirituality among citizens. This last element does not refer to spirituality as a lack of religion, rather described as mental health and a sense of social belonging, which help provide coping mechanisms for stress.
The key detail to take away from the Harvard panel is that stress is high in America and people are losing their ability to deal with it in healthy ways. When this happens, it is common for struggling individuals to turn toward substance abuse as an alternate way to cope with their problems. As a result, even though prescription opioid abuse declined between 2017 and 2018, the country is still under heavy stress, especially in our current health crisis of COVID-19. As more Americans are out of work, struggling financially, homeschooling children and grieving lost loved ones, many may be turning toward unhealthy ways to cope with this stress, such as heavy drinking and drug use.
Getting Help for Opioid Use Disorder
In a world where prescription drugs or similar alternatives are more easily accessible, overcoming an opioid addiction can feel like an impossible task. Even if a person wants to quit, temptation can repeatedly draw them back and as their tolerance grows, so do their odds of a fatal overdose.
Thankfully, those who suffer from substance use disorder are never truly alone. At Brookdale Premier Addiction Recovery, our dedicated staff is committed to providing the highest quality of individualized care available. We have purposefully designed a medical and clinical program that goes above and beyond to serve the needs of our patients.
If you or someone you love is struggling with substance use disorder, please do not wait until it is too late. Call us now at (855)575-1292 to speak with one of our trusted Admissions Specialists and begin your journey to recovery.