The Opioid Epidemic: Facts, Stigma Reduction, and Paths to Recovery

The Opioid Epidemic: Facts, Stigma Reduction, and Paths to Recovery

The opioid epidemic has been, and is continuing to be, a public health crisis.  As this crisis continues to grow, few families are untouched by this prevalent drug in some way or another.  It is essential to remember that opioids do not discriminate, and anyone can become addicted to opioids in a very short amount of time.

Keep reading to find out more information on the opioid epidemic and how you can support someone who may be impacted.

Facts on Opioid Use Disorder

Opioid use disorder is the psychiatric diagnosis for opioid abuse and opioid dependency.  Opioid use disorder is, in fact, a disease and not a choice.  Someone who is using opioids regularly has a chemical dependence.

  • In 2017, more than 72,000 Americans died from drug overdoses, including illicit drugs and prescription opioids. Opioids cause overdose death because they sit on the respiratory receptors in a person’s brain – therefore, they cease breathing.
  • Opioids are a class of drugs that include prescription pain relievers, synthetic opioids and heroin. These natural or synthetic chemicals interact with opioid receptors on the nerve cells in the body and brain and reduce feelings of pain and can potentially cause euphoria.
  • Abruptly stopping use of opioids can lead to severe symptoms including generalized pain, chills, cramps, diarrhea, dilated pupils, restlessness, anxiety, nausea, vomiting, insomnia, and very intense cravings.
  • Naloxone is a life-saving medication used to quickly reverse an opioid overdose. It can reverse and block the effects of other opioids and return normal breathing to someone whose breathing has slowed or stopped because of an opioid overdose.
  • Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is an effective treatment for individuals with an opioid use disorder. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) emphasizes that these medications helps reduce opioid cravings and withdrawal, and it helps restore balance to the brain.
  • Opioid use disorder is a chronic lifelong disorder. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition describes opioid use disorder as a problematic pattern of opioid use leading to problems or distress, with at least two of the following occurring within a 12-month period:
  1. Taking larger amounts or taking drugs over a longer period than intended.
  2. Persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control opioid use.
  3. Spending a great deal of time obtaining or using the opioid or recovering from its effects.
  4. Craving, or a strong desire or urge to use opioids
  5. Problems fulfilling obligations at work, school or home.
  6. Continued opioid use despite having reoccurring social or interpersonal problems.
  7. Giving up or reducing activities because of opioid use.
  8. Using opioids in physically hazardous situations.
  9. Continued opioid use despite ongoing physical or psychological problem likely to have been caused or worsened by opioids.
  10. Tolerance (i.e., need for increased amounts or diminished effect with continued use of the same amount)
  11. Experiencing withdrawal (opioid withdrawal syndrome) or taking opioids (or a closely related substance) to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms.

Reduce Stigma

One of the most important ways to combat the opioid epidemic is to reduce the stigma associated with addiction.

The Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, a part of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, has released a few main points relating to substance abuse-related stigma:

  • “Addiction-related” stigma is a powerful, shame-based mark of disgrace and reproach.
  • Stigma is generated and perpetuated by prejudicial attitudes and beliefs.
  • Stigma promotes discrimination among individuals at risk for, experiencing, or in recovery from addiction, as well as individuals associated with them.
  • People with substance-abuse disorders and people in recovery are ostracized, discriminated against, and deprived of basic human rights.
  • Individuals who are stigmatized often internalize inappropriate attitudes and practices, making them part of their self-identity.

Substance use is sometimes thought to be a behavior or choice and is not considered to be a disease.  However, this thinking disregards the chemical and internal way drugs can alter the human brain. Because of this, people being labeled if they speak out about their drug use, and this may prevent them from seeking tools needed for pretreatment, treatment, and recovery. Stigma is also a barrier in wide spread naloxone, a lifesaving medication used to reverse opioid overdose.

Those who face stigma have reported experiencing it from friends, family, healthcare workers, and those in the general public. However, we can help reduce stigma by:

  • Using people first language
  • Reaching out to those who may need help and providing encouragement and support
  • Educating ourselves and others on opioids, opioid use disorder, and the science behind addiction
  • Speaking up when you see someone being unfairly mistreated due to their substance use disorder
  • Listen to those who have experienced it first hand and respect their live experience and insight
  • Take a harm reduction approach to meet people where they are at and minimize risk.

Do You or Someone You Know Need a Path to Recovery?

Recovering from opioid use disorder is an individual path and there is no wrong door to enter through. It is essential to always provide support to others, or find support for yourself, when faced with opioid use disorder.  Support may look different for different people but always remember to reduce stigma and respond to any path to recovery positively.  Peer support specialists have been shown to be especially effective in a person’s recovery as their lived experience is both relatable and inspiring.  Contact your state mental health or behavioral health office to find out what type of support may be available to you in your state. Learn about my struggle with addiction.

The opioid epidemic may be impacting public health as a whole, but there are also many resources available to help individuals who are ready to seek recovery.  Always support others, do your part to reduce stigma, and carry naloxone.