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Viewing Opioid Addiction as a Public Health Problem

opioid addiction is a public health problemOne of the most challenging barriers to overcome when it comes to handling an addiction is the stigma and misunderstandings attached to being an addict. People who have substance use disorders are often viewed as poor, uneducated, minority males who are also criminals. However, this is simply not true. In fact, according to JAMA Psychiatry, the average heroin addicts are young, white and living in the suburbs.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, the average prescription painkiller addict is likely to be female and more and more medical professionals are reporting increased amounts of elderly patients becoming addicted to the dangerous narcotics.

In an effort to illustrate this point, researchers at University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus conducted a survey of patients at local methadone clinics. The researchers were initially interested in investigating the possible connection between prescription painkiller abuse and heroin abuse. They did find that most of the people enrolled at the methadone clinic originally started abusing prescription painkillers and eventually moved to heroin. But they also discovered for themselves that the face of opioid addiction has changed.

“We couldn’t tell who was a client from who worked there. Society paints a certain picture of addiction, we think of particular demographic, and that’s the stigma around methadone clinics. But it was so diverse — there were people in suits who looked like they could be professors, classmates or even your grandmother,” explained researcher, Lindsey Kato. It was a reality familiar with Kato, who has lost several friends to opioid addiction.

The clinics were full of people from all different walks of life. Some were homeless due to their addiction, others were poor and had been their entire lives, but many were average citizens. Half of the clients were college educated, more than a third were currently employed, and most either rented or owned their own home.

While it is important to educated people on the link between prescription painkillers and heroin, it also vitally important to teach that this could happen to anyone. Continuing to change the way we view addiction as a society can help build compassion for those who have been caught in the trap, ensuring that more treatment and recovery resources are available. As Kato pointed out, we cannot just lock up users and have the problem go away, we must work to provide effective intervention and rehabilitation services.

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