Drug overdoses killed 64,000 Americans last year. That is an increase of more than 20% than the overdose deaths in 2015. Those numbers have nearly quadrupled since 2000. Now nearly two-thirds of overdose deaths are from by opioids. Some are from prescription opioids; others are from illicit heroin or synthetics like fentanyl.
However, some are concerned that the action we have seen thus far is too little too late. The president’s 2018 budget only increases addiction treatment funding by less than 2%. That already includes the $500 million appropriated by Congress in 2016 under the 21st Century Cures Act. So needless to say, many recovery advocates worry that the resources are just not going to be enough.
If we look at the recommendations of the president’s opioid commission, and at other initiatives that have started to gain some traction across the country, we can find patterns. There are some concepts that consistently show up, and perhaps if we focus on these similarities, we can see why so many minds are thinking alike.
So here are 5 big ways America can overcome the opioid epidemic.
Break the Stigma
In order to accomplish most of the things on this list, America first has to consistently fight to break the stigma of drug use and addiction. Misunderstanding what addiction is and how it happens only undermines progress to addressing it. If America hopes to overcome the opioid crisis, we have to be more willing to see it for what it is.
Right now the issue of addiction stigma is still a big deal. While we may have come a long way from how it was decades ago, there are still a lot of people who refuse to consider addiction as an illness. A lot of people still refuse to acknowledge the various factors that contribute to addiction, such as genetic predisposition and instead insist addiction is purely by choice.
If we can see how drug use affects people from all different walks of life, and for countless different reasons, we can then treat those suffering from more compassion. Finding more effective methods of treatment means having a better idea of what really causes addiction, and what feeds it.
Support PAARI, NOT Punishment
Speaking of compassion, supporting PAARI and not punishment is a perfect example of letting go of stigma to work toward saving lives.
It is about time that all of America realizes that the old ways of the failed War on Drugs do not work. Thankfully, it seems a lot more people across the country now understand that we cannot arrest our way out of this problem. Harsher punishments and severe sentences have not deterred addiction, they only support stigma.
Now in America, there are nearly 300 law enforcement agencies across 31 states that have Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative programs (PAARI). These PAARI programs offer treatment for drug users who come to authorities looking for a way out. Instead of fearing the threat of arrest, people struggling with substances are encouraged to reach out to law enforcement in order to be put in contact with treatment options or recovery networks.
This revolutionary new mindset was inspired by a department in Gloucester, Massachusetts not too long ago. So far these efforts appear to cost much less and with better results than efforts focused on punishing addicts.
Create Resources for Treatment
Today addiction medicine is an urgently needed specialty, but there is not much glory in it compared to other areas of medical work. One way the federal government could help create more resources for treatment is to provide tuition incentives for medical students to enter addiction-related specialties and work in underserved communities. By encouraging this kind of work, we further shed the stigma of addiction and shift the perspective to helping care for a vulnerable community.
But don’t just end with specialists.
By supporting things like Medicaid expansion, addiction and mental health treatment can be made available to more people who may not have access to healthcare under limited coverage. More state and federal funding can also be allocated by officials to help build or strengthen addiction treatment programs provided by the state.
Enforce Mental Health Parity
The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 actually requires insurers provide equal benefits for mental health and addiction treatment that they do with other medical therapies or surgery. Thus, the law means to make discrimination against addicts by insurers illegal.
However, some insurers defy this law by imposing illogical treatment limits or tedious authorization requirements. In other words, insurance companies are finding ways to cheat the system in order to avoid paying for addiction and mental health treatment.
America and our government must to better to enforce mental health parity. If we want people to get the treatment they need, we have to protect their right to treatment and assure that insurance providers won’t be able to skip out on the bill.
According to John Renner, president of the American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry, between 50%- 70% of people with substance abuse problems also suffer from a mental health disorder such as:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
With mental health and addiction so closely related, making sure those struggling with opioids and other substances receive care for mental health disorders or other co-occurring conditions it vital to lasting recovery.
First and foremost; preserve life! This should always be a priority when facing any kind of epidemic. Regardless of the circumstances, the preservation of life should always be paramount. This is a discussion that has become crucial in the fight against opioids considering the need for life-saving medications and harm reduction tactics.
At the moment, first responders and emergency rooms do not have adequate access to Naloxone or Narcan, the opioid overdose antidote, to save lives. Both federal and state health agencies can negotiate pricing for naloxone and expand access. They can also encourage pharmacies that offer prescription-free access in some areas.
Another aspect of saving lives involves harm reduction strategies, which tend to be a little more controversial. Not everyone likes to support programs like safe injection sites or needle exchange programs. However, whether you think these programs enable addiction or not, these programs are proven to help preserve life. Between preventing the spread of infectious disease and providing a supported environment in case of overdose, these harm reduction models can prevent a lot of needless loss of life.
One indisputable precedence in the effort to overcome opioids is keeping people suffering alive long enough to get them treatment. The more people we can help survive opioid addiction, the more people have a chance of recovering.