According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, opioid overdoses increased by an average of 30 percent nationwide from the third quarter of 2016 to the third quarter of 2017. CDC Acting Director Anne Schuchat, M.D., warns, “We’ve got an emergency on our hands.”
Even as the crisis gets the media attention it deserves, there still is a vexing roadblock keeping many of those addicted to opioids from getting the treatment they need. As a physician leading addiction treatment teams, the roadblock I see most often is stigma.
A new survey by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research reveals that 13 percent of Americans have had a relative or close friend die from an opioid overdose. Though 53 percent see prescription drug addiction as a disease, many believe that addiction is a behavioral failing and that it can be overcome by willpower, sheer inner strength and self-control. If the patient relapses after successfully going through treatment, guess what typically gets blamed: a flaw in the patient’s character.
The medical fact is that addiction is a chronic brain disease where the physical circuitry of the brain changes due to genetic predisposition and environmental stimulus.
Just like any other disease, addiction requires treatment, based in scientific evidence provided by medical experts. We would not expect people afflicted with cancer to will it away or overcome it with inner strength of character, nor would we blame cancer patients if a recurrence happens after the cancer went into remission. Instead, we rally around them, work to get them into treatment, and support them throughout a tough road to recovery.
There is the additional stigma attached to medication for addiction treatment. Some mistakenly think physicians are trading one addiction for another. Research has proven that medication is the most effective treatment we have to stop the tragic cycle of addiction. Going back to the cancer example, we would never consider withholding life-saving medication from a patient with cancer. So why withhold medication for those struggling with addiction?
We need a fundamental shift to truly solve this crisis, because if we don’t embrace the fact that this is a chronic brain disease and not a character flaw, more lives will needlessly be lost.
We all have a role to play in fighting this epidemic. If you or someone you know is suffering from addiction, here are 5 steps to guide you:
- Look at addiction as a brain disease, and act with the compassion and support you would with anyone struggling with a deadly disease.
- Consider this disease as fast-moving and deadly. There is little time to save the patient, so move with utmost urgency.
- Locate proven, physician-driven, office-based care that quickly stabilizes the patient, such as medication treatment.
- Medication treatment alone may be sufficient, though some patients also require psychological and behavioral counseling to support their recovery. Every patient is different, so make sure there is access to a continuum of psychosocial care that works beyond medication alone.
- Once a patient gets through treatment, we need to think of sobriety as remission that requires ongoing management.
It will take all of us working together – medical teams trained in addiction treatment working hand-in-hand with the local community and civic leaders – to solve the addiction crisis. Treatment is not a cure for addiction. We must all recognize that addiction is a lifelong chronic condition that requires support - not stigma - from the individuals and institutions surrounding each patient.
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