Why The Opioid Epidemic Is Even Worse Than We Thought

Opioids, especially the misuse of opioids – including prescription pain killers, heroin, and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl – has caused an epidemic in the United States.  Every day there are approximately 128 opioid deaths due to overdose in the US - every single day.  Unfortunately, newfound studies have found that the numbers are likely much higher due to incomplete death records, according to a research study done by the University of Rochester.  Researchers found that between 1999 and 2016 there were about 100,000 more opioid related deaths than originally calculated.  Despite a decrease in opioid reported deaths in 2018, there was an uptick in 2019.  Furthermore, both years were likely underreported.  In order to continue to work towards a solution, it is important to take a look at why opioids are so addictive and what might be causing an increasing trend in opioid related deaths than ever before.


Simply put, opioids increase pleasure and reduce pain – both physical and emotional pain.  Opioids work by binding to receptors in the brain and other areas of the body and increase a release of “feel good chemicals” such as serotonin and dopamine.  Over time, an individual who continues to use opioids will have a disruption in their brain’s reward system.  This is because the individual’s natural ability to create “feel good chemicals” in their brain diminishes as it becomes dependent on opioids to create pleasure.  As such, individuals who are dependent on opioids often report feeling a low mood and may exhibit symptoms of depression.  Opioids are also addictive because they disrupt the brain circuits involved in impulse control in the prefrontal cortex, making it difficult for individuals with opioid addictions to resist taking opioids.  Additionally, individuals with an opioid addiction have neurally embedded associations and memories with opioids, resulting in miniscule things triggering them that may not even enter the conscious mind.


The recent opioid epidemic in the United States that started over a decade ago began through medical professionals overprescribing opioid medications such as Oxycodone (ex: Oxycontin and Roxycodone).  Such strong opioid medications were originally intended to help cancer patients fight off discomfort, but by the early to mid 2000’s turned into a medication that was commonly being prescribed for mild pain.  This resulted in an incredible amount of opioid medications being over-prescribed in the United States.  So much so that 90% of opioids in the world are found within the United States, even though the United States only makes up 5% of the world’s population.


Over time once the over-prescription of opioid medications was recognized, the government began to enforce stricter regulations.  This in turn caused a spike in heroin use as individuals already addicted to opioids found other means to obtain a similar high.  In more recent years we have seen that heroin is being mixed and cut with other opioids such as fentanyl, which has led to a surge in overdose deaths due to the potency of fentanyl.  We are also seeing a spike in mixtures of opioids sold by drug dealers such as “Gray Death” (Grey Death) which is a concoction of various opioids, as well as heroin mixed with a horse tranquilizer known as Xylazine.  These harmful mixtures are causing an increase in overdoses and overdose deaths all around the country.


A solution to the epidemic is challenging.  The social justice system and government officials have had disagreements as to the best way to move forward.  More and more lawmakers have endorsed drug courts and other methods and funding to encourage and support individuals to receive treatment rather than punishment.  There is more access to various methods of mental health treatments such as substance abuse programs, psychotherapy, and/or psychiatry than ever before.  Medication Assisted Treatments such as Suboxone and Vivitrol have proven to be effective in preventing relapse, and harm reduction programs are increasing to help reduce overdose and limit the spread of disease.  Professionals in various fields such as police, firemen/women, medical personnel, and medical and mental health professionals are being trained in and encouraged to carry Narcan, a drug to reverse opioid overdose with no harmful side effects.  Free trainings and supplies of Narcan are also available to the general public for free.


It is also helpful for family and friends to be aware of the signs and symptoms of opioid addiction so that you can help to support and encourage your loved one to seek help.  Signs of opioid addiction include, but are not limited to, mood swings, being tired or sad, isolating or change in social network, changes in sleep, weight and/or appetite, financial problems, loss of interest in activities, scratching/itching, runny nose, track marks or wearing long sleeves at all times, hot/cold sweats, constriction of pupils, and nodding off.  If you have a problem with opioids or any other drugs or addiction, or if you believe your loved one may have a problem, there is help available.  Seek out an addiction therapist or addiction psychiatrist in your area – you can simply do an internet search for a therapist in my area or mental health counselor near me.  Furthermore, if you are familiar with therapy and prefer a certain therapeutic approach, be more specific in your search such as by searching for a therapist who specialized in cognitive behavioral therapy or a therapist who specializes in behavioral therapy, or if you want to work with a family therapist inquire about family counseling, family coaching or family therapy.  It is very important to find the best therapist or mental health counselor who specializes in the issue you are seeking help for, who produces results, and who you feel comfortable with.


For more information or to inquire about our private concierge therapy services please contact our undisclosed therapy office location in the Upper East Side of New York City today at (929) 220-2912.

Lin Sternlicht & Aaron Sternlicht

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