Society is more open to discussing opioid addiction than ever before, so it’s important to take every opportunity to shine a light on the epidemic, explained Dr. Monica Bharel, Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health during a panel discussion in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Dr. Bharel was one of four experts who explored the science of addiction and the state of the opioid epidemic in America.
In addition to Dr. Bharel, the panelists included: Dr. Scott Lukas, a veteran psychopharmacology researcher; Dr. Sarah Wakeman, the Medical Director of Substance Use Disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital; and Seth Mnookin, an accomplished science journalist who has firsthand experience with heroin addiction.
How Opioids Become Addictive
Opiates are extremely effective at alleviating both physical and mental pain, but relief can come with a steep price, explained Dr. Lukas. Opioids interfere with receptors in the brain that measure carbon dioxide levels and regulate breathing, which can lead to fatal overdose. Furthermore, the bodies can develop a tolerance to opioids, creating the need to metabolize increasing levels to avoid withdrawal.
According to Dr. Wakeman, people misusing opioids may start out using them to feel good but shift to using them to avoid feeling like they will die, an effect brought on by withdrawal. In describing his own experience, Mr. Mnookin said it was a constant struggle to get back to feeling that he wasn’t “drowning.”
Many Who Struggle with Opioid Addiction Began with Prescription Drugs
The majority of individuals battling opioid addiction started out with an opiate that was originally prescribed by a doctor, according to Dr. Bharel. This underscores how crucial it is to prevent prescription drug abuse in order to turn the tide on the larger opioid epidemic.
The number of individuals impacted by opioid addiction has grown significantly in recent years. In 2015, 12.5 million people misused prescription opioids, and 91 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose.1
We Can All Play a Role in Preventing Opioid Addiction
Dr. Lukas shared two things people can do right now to help. First, anyone who is storing prescription opiates at home should properly dispose of them, he implored. Unused prescription drugs can easily be obtained undetected by other people in the home, including family members and guests.
Second, he suggested that individuals help eliminate the stigma around substance misuse disorder. Emphasizing this point, Dr. Bharel encouraged the audience to try to see the “human-ness” in people struggling with addiction and to understand it as an incurable disease that is not unlike other chronic illnesses.
Participating in events like this is one way CVS Health is helping to advance the dialogue around the opioid epidemic. Our company is committed to fighting prescription drug abuse and preventing it from affecting more lives. In communities across the country, we’re educating teens, promoting safe drug disposal and expanding access to life-saving overdose medications. By working to help the public understand the science behind addiction, we can help reduce the stigma associated with opioid abuse and help the health care community develop effective strategies to reduce overdose deaths.
This article was originally published on October 4, 2016, and was updated to reflect current data on September 21, 2017.