More people are dying from opioid overdoses than traffic accidents, yet no one seems to notice or want to address it. As commented on in the April 17th issue of The New York Times, “Serving All Your Heroin Needs”:
Meanwhile, the victims – mostly white, well-off and often young – are mourned in silence, because their parents are loath to talk publicly about how a cheerleader daughter hooked for dope, or their once-star athlete son overdosed in a fast-food restaurant bathroom.
Look at the numbers: 24,000 deaths from opioids. While the pain pill machine goes about its business of producing more and more addicts, no one says a thing.
For parents who do stand up and speak, the response is underwhelming. I attended an event at a large suburban high school billed as a community forum to examine the problems of recreational drug use, prompted by the drug death of a 17-year-old. Her father, Tom, spoke very movingly and passionately about his loss, but the audience was almost devoid of parents.
Why? Is it fear of hearing a contemporary bare his soul about a parent’s worse nightmare? Is it hoping that ignoring the problem will make it go away – soon they’ll be off to college anyway? Who knows? But the absence of any passion – any demand for action – was striking.
Stimulant use among 26-to-34-year-olds doubles in four years
The Sunday Times had a second story, this one on abuse of ADHD medications, titled “Workers Seeking Productivity in a Pill are Abusing A.D.H.D. Drugs.” Stimulants like Adderall, Vyvanse, and Concerta are migrating from school settings to the workplace. They’re now in play in demanding professions:
These lawyers said they and dozens of young colleagues at their firms had casually traded pills to work into the night and billed hundreds of extra hours a year in the race for partnerships.
Overuse leads to rapid heartbeat, acute anxiety, hallucinations, sleep deprivation, and addiction. Just the type of professional you want working on your case or in your firm or client base. Outside of the workplace, these pills are “Mommy Crack,” great for staying thin and multitasking on the home front.
Again, this phenomenon starts in high school, where students sell pills or give them to friends to help with academic focus and performance. They’re great for answering the four or five extra SAT questions needed to break 700 and pulling all-nighters for studying and exams. Whether it be weed, alcohol, uppers, or downer, students in every high school know who is selling or providing drugs and drinks, but are unwilling to name names out of fear of being ostracized or to protect their sources.
Silence and indifference
In any case – at the parent or student level – we have created a culture of silence and indifference not seen since the AIDS epidemic. We are beginning to make the connection between binge drinking and date rape among high school and college students, but a similar connection must be made between pharmaceutical companies’ and doctors’ profits and drug dependence and deaths. In both instances, the big businesses supplying the alcohol and pills pay less than 5% of their collateral damage and can never atone for their increasing death toll.
Not to minimize the AIDS epidemic, but what we’re dealing with here is on a very large scale. The Band Plays On, with alcohol and opioid deaths exceeding 100,000 per year. When will enough of us join together to stop this growing tragedy?
Becoming addicted to pain pills
Perhaps understanding how opioid dependency develops will be the first step in generating more public support for taking on the drug industry.
For those of you unfamiliar with how someone becomes dependent on pain pills, here is how it happens. People have an injury, surgery, or dental work and are given a prescription for 30 pain pills. After just a few days, it takes more pills to obtain the same level of effect in dampening pain. Most patients learn to tolerate their pain and supplement with over-the-counter medications. But then once they near the end of their supply, there is the problem of stopping. Stopping abruptly leads to uncomfortable physical symptoms, so most people taper off. But addicts are not like most people, and they don’t stop.
The dependency cycle
The dependency cycle begins when a person ups the dose, decides it’s too uncomfortable to quit, or in fact likes the physical and psychological effects from the pills. These narcotics can give a euphoric sensation of withdrawing from the world. Users will continue to seek prescriptions until their doctors decide to cut them off. From there, they turn to doctor-shopping and online ordering, or worse.
Switch to heroin
Many users – or addicts – switch to heroin because it’s cheaper and more readily available. It also can produce a really powerful and pleasurable body jolt the first few times. This motivates the addict to “chase the high” – trying to reproduce the feelings from that first time by increasing the amount, potency, or by mixing with other drugs. Very dangerous and a big reason for all the deaths. A similar process occurs for other narcotics.
Painkillers are meant for acute pain, not chronic pain, as are most other drugs, such as anxiety or sleeping medications. But remember, this starts with the doctor handing out the initial 30-pill prescriptions or samples provided by Big Pharma, enough to hook some patients, as the drug companies know all too well. And it’s no secret that doctors are liberal with the scripts – even doling out Norco (acetaminophen and hydrocodone) by the handful to newly-postpartum nursing mothers. It’s hard to keep saying no when it’s always offered.
Transforming public opinion and policy
Attacking the supply side seems like a good first step, but that means overcoming deeply entrenched social stigma, leaving the shadows, and finding the courage to tell our truths – namely that these problems don’t exist in a vacuum. With opioid-related overdose deaths occurring every four minutes, we can no longer pretend that these “dirty” deaths are only happening to strung-out junkies living on the streets in the inner city. They are happening to us, our families, and our friends. Fortunately, new generations are stepping forward to start conversations aimed at transforming public opinion and policy.
To Tom, the father who spoke out at the community forum, you are not alone, and we will not forget your daughter.