The Epidemic of Our Time: Opioid Addiction

Robert is tired. He has been traveling back and forth across the West coast, trying to outrun the tumultuous winter that we have been having, attempting to find a more permanent place to stay.  He is homeless, addicted to heroin, and defeated.  “I hate myself,” he says to me, the deep wrinkles on his face telling the unspoken story of a hard life lived in the margins.  “I hate myself when I’m using and I hate myself even more when I’m not.”  Sarah is a professional, a graduate of a state university.  She comes from an affluent family, is funny and likable, and it would appear that she has it all together. Except, she doesn’t.  Sarah is also addicted to heroin.

Heroin, along with morphine and a variety of other prescription pain pills, is an opioid.  Opioids attach to opioid receptors in the brain and throughout the body to dull perceptions of pain.  They can also affect the brain’s pleasure system–giving people a sense of euphoria (or a high). Opioid addiction is an epidemic in the United States.  In 2014 there was an estimated 2.5 million people suffering from prescription opioid and/or heroin addiction, and this number has been estimated to have grown exponentially over the last few years.

As we look at opioid/heroin addiction from a systems perspective it is imperative that we understand several things:

  1. Addiction is not a lack of moral principles or willpower, but rather an incredibly complex disease that changes the very makeup of the brain.
  2. Opioid addiction does not discriminate; it reaches people of every age, race, and socioeconomic class.
  3. Opioid addiction frequently leads to homelessness, domestic violence, poverty, and death.
  4. The opioid epidemic did not just happen.  It was created and propagated by Purdue Pharmaceutical who pushed OxyContin (an opioid) in the late 1990s and early 2000s and who then deliberately downplayed the risk of its addiction and abuse. Fun fact, the company was eventually fined $634 million for their withholding of this information.  That same year Purdue Pharmaceutical brought in $1.5 billion in sales.  For a more in-depth and detailed description of the rise of opioids please click here

So, now that we know the basics and that this is a problem, what can we do?  We can start by educating ourselves even more about addiction.  When you understand the science behind this fatal disease, it helps you to stop judging the individual, to stop blaming them for their “bad choices.”  We can stop looking at people as addicts, and instead look at them as human beings, as our family member who had a surgery and took the recommended dose of pain pills until they could no longer function without it.  We can question why a company was able to knowingly destroy millions of lives and put millions more at risk just to turn a profit.  We can question why when their unethical and immoral practices were discovered they received nothing more than a slap on the wrist.

And we can fight back.  We can boycott the use of products by companies that have, for no reason other than their bottom line, wreaked havoc by perpetuating a cycle of addiction and ruin.  We can evaluate and be knowledgeable of our representatives’ stances and ties to big pharma and support initiatives that champion funding for treatment and education. And we can give.  We can give to local organizations that are battling this epidemic on a daily basis.  Please click on the links below to see how you can be part of the fight.

The Life Change Center

Northern Nevada Hopes


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