The opioid overdose epidemic in the United States has been simmering for years, and it shows no sign of stopping. In the 15-year period from 2000 to 2015, more than half a million people died from drug overdoses, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. More than 60% of those deaths were related to opioids, including heroin and prescription drugs. With this crisis continuing unabated, it has become imperative to launch a nationwide overdose awareness campaign.
Scope of the Opioid Problem in the United States
People have been abusing opioids for centuries. However, only in the past two decades has opioid use in the United States reached epidemic proportions. Since 1999, the number of opioid overdose deaths has quadrupled. In 2015, the last year for which data are available, there were 20,101 reported overdoses related to prescription painkillers and another 12,990 related to heroin. This means that people in our country are dying by the thousands each year.
Drug addiction can affect anyone: young or old, man or woman, wealthy or impoverished. However, certain areas of the country have been harder hit than others. In particular, the coal belt — including southern Ohio, western Pennsylvania, and West Virginia — has very high levels of opioid abuse. In these communities and others across the country, the opioid crisis continues to escalate. For example, in Ohio, opioid-related overdose deaths jumped 775% over 13 years, from 296 in 2003 to more than 2,500 in 2015. In a single county in eastern Ohio, 1 in 5 deaths were due to drug overdoses last year. The devastation of this opioid crisis has become so extreme that the coroner’s office recently had to borrow a cold storage trailer from the state because the morgue was full.
What Is Fueling the Opioid Epidemic?
This spike in opioid-related fatalities has public health officials worried. The underlying causes of the epidemic appear to be multiple. One of the primary reasons for this surge is because of the rise of prescription drug use. In 2012, physicians wrote enough prescriptions for opioid painkillers that every adult in the U.S. could have their own bottle of pills. While prescription opioids are appropriate for controlling certain types of pain, chronic use of these medications leads to physiological dependence on the drug. Some prescription drug users eventually turn to heroin to get their fix.
Another reason for the spike in opioid overdose deaths is related to the types of drugs appearing on the street. In recent police raids, public officials have reported that a constantly changing batch of designer drugs is ravaging communities. These drugs are chemically similar to heroin or fentanyl but can be hundreds or even thousands of times more potent. Carfentanyl, “gray death,” and U-47700 (sometimes called “pink”) are just a few of the new opioid compounds linked to overdose deaths. In many cases, the individuals taking the drugs have no idea that their heroin contains potentially deadly substances.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the opioid epidemic to combat is the drug addiction stigma. Despite years of scientific evidence demonstrating that addiction is similar to other treatable conditions, the stigma of addiction continues to linger. People mistakenly believe that opioid overdoses only occur to “bad people” or “criminals”. However, they fail to recognize the individuals struggling in their own communities could simply be self-medicating an untreated mental health condition or suffering from lack of support. This stigma makes it difficult for people to seek the help they need to combat opioid dependence and addiction.
Overdose Awareness Campaign: Prevention is Critical
Given the serious nature of the opioid threat, we need a nationwide opioid awareness campaign to combat this crisis. Younger adults are particularly vulnerable, and they need to know what is at risk when using drugs. Heroin in particular has become a game of Russian roulette. It’s impossible to know what other deadly substances street heroin contains, meaning that people are risking their lives with every use.
The opioid crisis has been simmering for too long, and it is time to take it seriously. The Waismann Method Center is calling public health officials, treatment professionals, and other groups around the nation to join together to raise awareness of this public health crisis. This campaign must create fear and educate individuals about the real, deadly consequences of opioid use. Each time a person uses opioids could be their last.
Furthermore, we must educate people about the effects of opioids and improve accessibility to effective heroin addiction treatment. Treatments such as medical opioid detox can reverse opioid dependence without the dreaded withdrawal period. By combining this treatment with supportive aftercare and individualized emotional care, individuals struggling with drug addiction can have a real chance to start a new, sober, healthy chapter of their lives.
We have the scientific knowledge and the resources. Now we need to make saving lives a real priority for our country.