In the weeks since the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, news outlets across the country scrutinized the United States’ gun control policies. In the wake of such a tragic event, which claimed seventeen lives, the gun control issue is at the forefront of most Americans’ minds. But despite the recent attention that gun control has garnered, recent survey results conducted by The Recovery Village suggest that many people are more preoccupied with, and personally impacted by, another crisis plaguing the United States: opioid addiction.
This is not to understate the seriousness of gun violence. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that 96 Americans are killed with guns every day, with over 35,000 lives lost each year. But the fact that a significant portion of people are more concerned about opioid addiction speaks volumes about the pervasiveness of the United States’ substance use problem. According to the results of a survey conducted by The Recovery Village less than two weeks after the Parkland mass shooting, more people (51.75 percent of respondents) believe that opioid addiction is a higher-priority problem than gun control (45.5 percent).
As a leader in the behavioral health care field, The Recovery Village is committed to understanding and combating the opioid crisis on all fronts. Our recent survey of hundreds of Americans impacted by opioid addiction set out to better understand the extent of the epidemic.
A Nationwide Problem
It’s no secret that the U.S. is struggling with an addiction and overdose crisis, particularly when it comes to opioids. Drug overdoses killed more than 64,000 people in 2016. A staggering two-thirds of these deaths were attributed to opioids. Last year, the epidemic was declared a public health emergency. Opioid addiction has impacted many people in one way or another, with nearly 61 percent of survey respondents reporting that they are “very familiar” with the United States’ opioid crisis.
The Opioid Epidemic at a Glance
- More than 115 Americans die every day from opioid overdose
- The cost of health care, lost productivity, addiction treatment and criminal justice involvement related to opioid addiction in the U.S. is $78.5 billion every year
- More than 650,000 opioid prescriptions are dispensed every day.
- In 2014, there were 40 percent more deaths from opioid overdoses than from car crashes.
- In 2015, an estimated 2.7 million Americans struggled with opioid dependence or addiction
How It Started
Opioids have been utilized for both recreational and medical purposes for thousands of years. While some opioids are naturally derived and others are biologically engineered, these substances are all chemically similar to opium, a substance that is derived from the poppy plant. The addictive properties of opioids have been known for nearly as long as they’ve been in use; countless epidemics of heroin and morphine throughout history serve as cautionary tales. Because of this, before 1995, the use of prescription opioids like morphine and codeine were largely limited to patients struggling with severe pain from cancer, major surgery and serious injuries.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that attitudes toward opioid use began to shift dramatically. A 1986 study based on a small sample size of 38 patients suggested that these drugs could be used to quell chronic pain with only minimal rates of addiction. From there, pharmaceutical companies began advocating for an increased usage, prioritizing pain relief over the risk of addiction. Professional groups and physicians fell in line and the way that doctors looked at and treated pain fundamentally changed.
Despite current widespread knowledge of the opioid epidemic and its impact, many doctors continue to prescribe higher doses of opioids for longer than necessary. According to survey results released by The National Safety Council, 99 percent of doctors who prescribe opioid medications prescribe them for more than the three-day treatment period that is recommended by the CDC. Enough opioids are prescribed every year in the U.S. to keep every man, woman and child in the country medicated around the clock for three weeks straight. These prescription practices have led to thousands of deaths. In the United States, from 1999 to 2015, more than 183,000 people died from prescription opioid-related overdoses.
That statistic cuts to the core of opioid addiction, and also dispels one of its most common myths: those who are addicted to opioids are lazy people who just want to sit around and get high. While personal responsibility is certainly a factor in addiction, many people who struggle with opioid addiction may never have taken these substances without a doctor’s prescription. The CDC reports that opioid dependence occurs in 26 percent of patients using opioids for chronic, non-cancerous pain. Perhaps this is why 48 percent of the survey respondents believe that doctors are to blame for the opiate crisis.
Who It Affects
Today, the opioid epidemic is widespread enough that it touches people in many families, communities and states across the country. This was clear by the number of survey respondents personally impacted: More than 26 percent report that they have at least one family member who is addicted to opioids, and more than half (66.75 percent) say that there are a large number of opioid-related deaths in their city. Despite many people’s personal connection to the crisis, the full extent of its heartbreaking effects can still be difficult to understand, especially in relation to our nation’s most vulnerable — the children and the elderly.
According to the Pew Charitable Trust, the opioid epidemic is creating a crisis in the nation’s foster care system. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that nearly three quarters of states have seen an unprecedented number of children entering foster care. Parental substance use was cited as the primary reason for this increase.
The CDC has also reported a significant increase in the number of babies born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS). Babies with NAS become dependent on a substance while still in the womb. Once they are born, they experience drug withdrawal symptoms that can be life-threatening and detrimental to their future development and health. Over the past 15 years, the rate of babies born with NAS has nearly quadrupled.
A common misconception is that most of the people struggling with opioid addiction are young people using illicit opioids, like heroin. However, people between the ages of 45 and 64 account for 40 percent of all drug overdose deaths. Most of these cases involve the use of prescription medications administered by medical providers, including opioids. The Brookings Institute has found that deaths of middle-aged, Caucasian individuals in rural areas have increased dramatically, particularly in “opioid-belt” states like Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Idaho, Montano, West Virginia and Kentucky.
What We Can Do
The steadily increasing trend of opioid overdoses and the attitudes of people across the country make it clear that although some measures have been taken to limit prescription rates and combat the opioid crisis, there is still much work left to be done. When asked if the United States is doing enough to address the opiate crisis, approximately 57 percent of respondents replied, “Not at all.”
But what can be done about such an entrenched problem, especially when so many doctors continue to prescribe opioids at alarming rates? Some people may argue that those who are addicted to opioids should be punished for their actions. But this is an uncompassionate — and expensive — solution. In 2007, the National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC) estimated that $113 billion was spent on drug-related crime, including criminal justice system costs. On the other hand, the cost of treating drug abuse was estimated to be $14.6 billion. Across countless studies, treatment has continually shown to be the most cost-effective method of reducing drug use, improving productivity and decreasing crime.
In recent years, public perception is pushing us toward the more compassionate and practical path. Eighty-five percent of survey respondents reported that the best solution for people addicted to opioids is rehab. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIH), most people who begin and complete treatment are more likely to abstain from drug use, decrease their criminal activity and improve their overall social, psychological and occupational functioning.
High-quality opioid addiction treatment is needed now more than ever before. Fortunately, countless rehab centers across the country are working to provide clients with access to affordable, life-changing care. The Recovery Village is joining this battle by delivering treatment to clients across the United States in the areas that are the most directly impacted by opioid addiction. With an extensive network of facilities, a full continuum of programs and dedicated staff, The Recovery Village can help clients progress toward a healthier, happier life in recovery — something that approximately 50 percent of survey respondents believe is possible — once the opioid crisis ends.