An estimated 20 percent of the US population has, at one point or another in their lives, tried an illicit or legal drug for nonmedical purposes. Yet even more astoundingly, over half of the country is taking prescription medication for one chronic condition or another.
Opioids have taken the news cycle by storm over the past few years, and the word “epidemic” has followed them. Indeed, Americans are taking more painkillers than ever, and more Americans than ever are dying due to opioids misuse and addiction. We are facing a national crisis, not just a crisis of chronic pain, but a crisis of blatant misuse and underestimation towards the dangers of prescription drugs, and their potential addictiveness.
Yet it isn’t just opioids that are a problem. 1 in 6 Americans is taking a psychiatric drug, typically antidepressants or sedatives for anxiety. This massive rise in drug use among those struggling with mental illness is also plagued by an increased rate of addiction, especially among users of sedatives such as Xanax and Ativan.
Medication has a long history of being a beneficial force in the development of humanity and the continued survival of civilizations. Improved hygiene and a more complete understanding of science has let us overcome great plagues, find cures to common diseases, and lower mortality rates for infants and adults alike.
Yet not all medication is without its drawbacks, and prescription drugs – made available only through a prescription due to their potential for misuse – are prone to abuse due to a lax approach to regulating the amount of prescription medication given to patients, while acting as a gateway to similar substances such as heroin.
Prescription Drugs in America
These are some of the most dangerous prescription drugs that pose a threat as a source of addiction:
Other common sources of addiction include opioids such as Fentanyl, CNS depressants such as Valium, and stimulants, particularly amphetamines and dextroamphetamines like Adderall.
While prescription drugs are typically only available through a prescription, misuse is common. Of the estimated 119 million Americans taking psychotherapeutic drugs, 19 million didn’t follow their prescription. Most of these got the drugs from a friend or a family member with a prescription, while others took more than their prescription advised. Only 5 percent of the usage of prescription drugs came from the black market.
Misuse is rampant and continues to be rampant due to the sheer availability of these drugs and the ease through which someone can get them – yet there is a distinct lack of affordable treatment.
While treatment exists in the form of residential treatment, sober living communities and certain non-profit outreach programs looking out for those struggling with addiction, the vast majority of people hooked on prescription drugs and in the opioid epidemic are unemployed low-skill workers who turned to drugs as way to cope with the worsening job markets. Gender might also play a role, as men find themselves taking greater risks in today’s economy, while seeking a way to kill the stress. This is a societal issue at its core, one that can only be fixed through a societal effort.
Why the Epidemic is Spreading
The opioid epidemic in America is at a point where over 33,000 people have lost their lives over opioids in 2015. Most of the casualties from this epidemic can be found in suburbs and rural towns. The general idea is that the epidemic was caused by a combination of an explosion in prescription painkillers dating back to the 90s, a rise in unemployment due to automation and cheap labor available through globalization, and the competing potency of the drugs between pharmaceutical companies. Today, prescription painkillers are available at an all-time high, and deaths followed suit.
To stop this epidemic is no easy task. But there are ways to help on an individual level. Raising awareness is one way – politics and policies are influenced by the people, and it’s through the people’s engagement that issues are brought to the forefront. Opioids and other prescription drugs have caused countless tragedies and have to be stopped, before they tear apart even more families.
Furthermore, alternatives can be found and must be shared – ways to deal with most cases of anxiety, obesity and chronic pain without prescription medication.
Treating the Problems, Not Just the Symptom
Cracking down on addicts and their source of addiction has always been a Band-Aid solution for a seeping, festering wound in society, one that requires more invasive action and better, smarter ideas. Incarceration, prosecution and mediocre healthcare will not help this country deal with its massive prescription drug problem, and neither will something as simplistic as wiping out all illegal sources of drugs through force and violence.
The war and drugs has done but one thing since Reagan: help in increasing the nation’s overall debt. The real solutions are coming through compassionate programs that help those in need get the treatment they deserve, alongside the support their families need. Addiction will only work if we band together to look towards a community solution, one where we learn to be inclusive towards those who struggle with sobriety, rather than looking down on them as dangerous, volatile, weak-willed individuals as decades of stigma have led us to believe.
If anything, the opioid crisis should have taught America that anyone can get addicted to drugs, regardless of race, status or upbringing. All it takes is a single tragedy and a slippery slope towards a state of total dependence and daily struggle.
Despite semantics, there are precious few differences between an addiction to a “hardcore” drug like crystal meth, and a prescription drug like fentanyl. An addiction is an addiction, and breaking an opioid addiction can be a grueling, life-long struggle. Even after treatment and sobriety, we need to ensure that our society is one where people always have a place, rather than being rejected by society and robbed of any chance of redemption.
Drug use, no matter how long ago, is still a red mark on many people’s lives. This must change. We have to recognize the strength and will it takes to persevere through recovery and stay sober, rather than belittling and judging people by the mistakes they have already paid for.