Addiction is one of the most stigmatized diseases in the United States. Many argue that addiction begins with poor personal choices, weak-willed mentality and inability to ‘just say no!’ The same ones who use this harmful rhetoric also dehumanize people suffering from addiction by telling them to simply refrain from taking the drugs they are addicted to, because it’s just that easy to stop. In a black and white world, sure, these insensitive assumptions could have some validity to them. However, the world is not black and white; addiction can happen to anyone and is nearly impossible to escape from without help. The stereotype of a ‘junkie’ scouring the streets for their next fix to shoot up, to snort, to smoke, should be long-erased from the discussion regarding addiction. The modern-day drug addict is not as often one that started with just wanting to get high; it’s one that went into a doctor’s office, needing a medical procedure, and left with a prescription for legal opioids for pain relief. Those opioids, unknowingly on the side of the patient, create a habit and begin the devastating cycle of addiction that ends in death for tens of thousands of Americans every year.
Accessibility to prescription opioids, like the famous OxyContin, has more and more Americans falling victim to this disease. The predatory pharmaceutical industry relies on use of opioids that they know are killing people in order to make massive fortunes. Certain companies, like Purdue Pharma, exploited people seeking pain-relief to the fullest extent, building a multi-billion dollar empire. Since this company has been under fire, doctors have made some small strides in following rules and regulations put in place regarding prescribing opioids. However, prescription opioids are still prescribed at an incredibly high rate - and often in a careless fashion. Lack of information about the side effects and risk of long-term addiction from doctors who over-prescribe them traps patients in a cycle. Without the drugs that are easing pain, their body goes into symptoms of withdrawal, which are severe, flu-like symptoms. In order to avoid painful withdrawals that are on top of the pain that the patient originally sought treatment for, more pills are needed. Oftentimes, those who use prescription opioids move onto illicit opioids, like heroin, as a cheaper and more potent alternative. According to The National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Of those who began abusing opioids in the 2000s, 75 percent reported that their first opioid was a prescription drug.” This statistic highlights the harmful impact of prescription opioids; people struggling with use of prescription opioids are very likely to move to heroin and synthetic opioids, like fentanyl.
Because opioid addiction often begins with a doctor, someone who is to be trusted regarding our health and making medical judgements, the opioid epidemic has swept through America at an alarming rate. Addiction knows no bounds; not race, gender, nor socioeconomic status can shield one from this disease. From 1999 to 2019, nearly 500,000 Americans died from an opioid-related overdose. Over this twenty-year span, half of a million people and their families suffered unbearable pain, heartache, and grief. Half of a million families buried their loved one after their sudden and painful death. Addiction is a demon that society stigmatizes and still sees as a self-inflicted illness. It mercilessly rips people from their jobs, their lives, their families, and turns them into shells of who they used to be. The way that the chemicals in opioids impact the human brain make it nearly impossible for most to stop using, which results in the horrific alternative: death by an overdose.
August 31st of every year is International Overdose Awareness Day. This began as a movement in Australia in 2001 and has since branched out as a global campaign. On social media, open platforms hosted by this organization encourage those who have struggled with and lost a loved one to addiction to share their grief or stories. There are conferences worldwide hosted that seek discussion about how to end the stigma behind drug-related deaths as well as how to reform drug policy in order to prevent these deaths. This kind of awareness being spread globally is exactly the steps that we as a people need to take in order to save lives. Compassion and empathy are key in helping those struggling with opioid use; it is time to leave the labels and stigmas associated with this in the past. Overdose and addiction do not happen in a vacuum. It can happen to anyone, at any time. We as a society must work together to reform our thought processes and make active change regarding the opioid epidemic, otherwise we will inevitably face half of a million more deaths.
If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration helpline to speak to a counselor 24/7.