The opioid epidemic is in full swing, and we aren’t doing enough to curtail its effects. According to projections by STAT, within the next decade, we could lose 650,000 people to opioid overdoses—a population equivalent to the entire city of Baltimore, and then some.
Last year alone, more than 64,000 people died from drug overdoses, making it one of the deadliest years on record, with a death toll higher than those from guns, car accidents, or HIV/AIDS, and higher than the Vietnam and Iraq Wars’ casualties combined.
Yet we aren’t doing enough to reduce the threat.
The State of Emergency
Back in October, President Trump seemed to take a step in the right direction when he formally declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency, bringing increased national attention to the problem and recognizing its destructive potential.
He pledged to reduce rates of drug addiction and abuse throughout the country, but didn’t allocate any additional funds to resources that could help manage the crisis. Despite public health officials’ insistence that the best way to address the problem is the rapid expansion of medical treatment, the current administration is focusing efforts on an advertising campaign similar to the Reagan administration’s “just say no” anti-drug campaigns in the 1980s.
Recovering from addiction is a long and painful process, and by the time treatment becomes necessary, most addicts are too lost to the drug to make logical decisions for themselves. Few users are coherent enough to actively seek out the treatment they need, even when persuaded that they should do so by advertising or awareness campaigns.
On top of that, drug rehab facilities are expensive and sometimes difficult to find. A quick online search can introduce you to dozens of rehab centers nearby, and thousands across the country, but without the resources and the will to pursue those avenues, existing addicts will be unable to get help.
One of the most serious root causes of the epidemic is excessive prescribing of opioid painkillers to relieve pain. The burden here rests on multiple shoulders:
- Doctors continue prescribing opioid painkillers, sometimes at egregious rates, because it’s convenient, or because they don’t recognize the impact that this over-prescribing can have on our society.
- Insurance companies readily reimburse for opioid painkillers, allowing a continuous cycle of economic gain that makes it nearly impossible to cut back on the drugs’ use or prescriptions.
- Effective pain management is rare and difficult to integrate. While there are some novel methods of pain management emerging as alternatives to opioid painkillers, they’re difficult to invent and even more difficult to get approved and integrated into our existing healthcare system. This makes opioids, by default, an easier solution for pain.
Training and Access
We also need to be focused on training more personnel to be equipped to handle the opioid epidemic. With addicted patients being both unreliable and difficult to work with, it’s hard to find volunteers or professionals who are willing to go out of their way to continue providing treatment. Professionals need to be prepared for the realities of addiction treatment, and equipped with the resources necessary to be successful. In most cases, that also means providing consistent and easier access to medications designed to decrease or mitigate the effects of opiate dependence.
Right now, the death toll of opioid abuse is as high as it’s ever been, and despite some steps in the right direction, we’re still not doing enough to limit its development. If we’re going to move past this as a society, we need to invest more time and resources into painkiller alternatives, we need to demand more from our doctors and insurance companies, we need to provide more easily accessible treatment to those suffering from addictions, and above all, we need to recognize the scale and severity of this threat. Unless we fundamentally change how we think about and fight back against the opioid epidemic, it’s only going to get worse.