Americans are More Likely to Die From an Accidental Opioid Overdose Than a Car Wreck: How the Stigmas of Addiction are Propelling the Epidemic
It’s quintessential for us to spread awareness and cease the criticizing conversations.
According to the National Safety Council, just released statistics reveal that the lifetime odds of death are more likely to occur by accidental opioid overdose than an automobile accident. This unprecedented finding can be directly correlated with the epidemic surfacing, not only in the U.S. but worldwide.
It’s no secret that opioid addiction has spread rampantly throughout the United States. According to the Center for Disease Control, “Drug overdose is the leading cause of death in Americans under 50.” The U.S. is the leader in consumption and abuse of opioids, however, this is not an isolated crisis. The battle against opiate abuse is a global epidemic. The United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom are examples of countries fighting against the staggering statistics of opiate overdose related deaths within their own borders.
Studies conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse have concluded: “Every day, more than 115 people in the United States die after overdosing on opioids. The misuse of and addiction to opioids—including prescription pain relievers, heroin, and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl—is a serious national crisis that affects public health as well as social and economic welfare.”
According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), “Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the US, with 52,404 lethal drug overdoses in 2015. Opioid addiction is driving this epidemic, with 20,101 overdose deaths related to prescription pain relievers, and 12,990 overdose deaths related to heroin in 2015. From 1999 to 2008, overdose death rates, sales and substance use disorder treatment admissions related to prescription pain relievers increased in parallel.”
Statistical resources provide overwhelming evidence to support an opiate epidemic in the U.S. Opiates are classified as narcotics and act as a depressant, affecting the central nervous system. Ignorance to the stronghold of these medications ultimately leads to dependence and abuse.
Addiction has been denounced as a hopeless malady, one that only ends in death, guaranteed despair, and illicit behavior. The tragic behaviors of addicts have consequently flooded into the lives of those around us and ultimately warranted assumptions that we have a choice. To the ignorant and uneducated, this ailment has been synonymous with Amy Winehouse, disheveled appearance, Kurt Cobain, dirty needles, Charlie Sheen, and reckless behavior. The moral compass of said addicts has been called into question. Snowballing out of control, the effect of such ideology has resulted in stigmas promoting this silent epidemic.
It is no secret that our prison system is flooded with repeat, addicted offenders. These privately owned systems are funded by the imprisonment of many struggling addicts and alcoholics. The U.S. has been dubbed the host of one of the largest criminal justice (and punishment) organizations of the Western World. The problem lies within the criminalization over the resources for treatment for the sick and suffering.
The stigmas are not solely to blame for the epidemic and improper ‘treatment’ of said addicts. Lack of education, resources, and treatment options also contribute to the lack of empathy and understanding for this group of individuals. Science has continued to associate brain chemistry, environmental factors, trauma, and even DNA as directly correlated with the disease of addiction. Perhaps the continued efforts, of scientists and psychologists, can help shift the thinking of those in power to view addicts/alcoholics as sick individuals rather than morally inept.
Many individuals, struggling with drugs and alcohol, are driven by fear and incomprehensible amounts of guilt and shame. Social discrimination can add unwarranted and detrimental stress to those individuals. These stigmas can directly impact the silence of this fatal disease. Often times, individuals may feel afraid and embarrassed to reach out for help. A 2014 survey conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) revealed that “21.5 million Americans reported an issue with substance abuse but only 2.5 million received the treatment they needed.” In other words, many suffered in silence due to a lack of resources and/or societal stigmas.
Ostracized from families, friends, and even the medical world… these individuals often feel completely isolated. Individuals struggling with substance abuse are oftentimes suffering from an underlying co-occuring disorder as well. Depression, anxiety, trauma, bipolar disorder, and a number of other mental health disorders can contribute to the individual’s feelings of hopelessness. Isolation and societal condemnation can cause further harm to the addict and their willingness to seek help.
Inadequate Medical Treatment
Lack of scientific evidence and medical recognition of the disease of addiction contributed to the lack of medical resources for addicts/alcoholics. For many years, these individuals were deemed “hopeless” and sought resources within 12-step fellowships. Without direction from a professional, sometimes these individuals found themselves retreating and avoiding treatment altogether. Many doctors still refuse to recognize the disease of addiction and thus treat the patient accordingly. Some doctors may offer medication-assisted treatment. Without proper follow-up treatment plans and care, this method has been found to be quite controversial and sometimes counterproductive.
Traditional methods of mental health practice enforced the idea that first, the addict must be clean and sober before any sessions can benefit the individual. Twelve-step programs have proven this to not be an indefinite solution. Detox and treatment can most definitely be beneficial but the addict’s willingness alone can be a great place to start. In other words, it is better the addict begins to reach out for help and work on seeking sobriety rather than suffering alone. There are many benefits of psychotherapy in conjunction with substance abuse treatment. It is important to relinquish the stigmas associated with addiction in order to encourage treatment.
The truth is, many addicts will suffer in silence, in fear of the judgments and consequences that follow disclosing their struggles. We wouldn’t punish a sick friend for their uncontrollable symptoms nor would we enable their unhealthy habits and we must treat addicts the same: they are sick. It’s quintessential for us to spread awareness and cease the criticizing conversations. If sharing my experience, as an addict, can help one other addict and demolish the judgments of a critic, then it’s all worth it.