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Enough opioid painkillers were prescribed by doctors in Ohio last year, three quarters of a billion, that every man, woman and child in the state could have had 65 pills each. Though the state has been hit particularly hard by the ever-increasing spread of heroin, losing on average 23 people a week to fatal overdoses, across the country, cities and states face a similar crisis.
One of the reasons this widespread issue seems to fly under the radar, despite its prevalence in the news, is most states don’t require specific drugs be listed in the overdose report. Stacy Emminger, who lives in Mount Joy, a quiet Pennsylvania town, lost her son Anthony to an accidental heroin overdose. In an interview with National Public Radio (NPR), the grieving mother reveals that her son’s death certificate lists his cause of death as multiple drug toxicity, not heroin overdose.
With statistics that are, in most cases, years old combined with a lack of detailed records, the true cost of this epidemic isn’t totally understood. CBS’s 60 Minutes recently aired a segment on heroin’s foothold in the American heartland, talking to upper middle-class parents in Columbus, Ohio who lost their children to heroin overdoses. Bill Whittaker, the correspondent, also spoke with Hannah Morris, a college student recovering from a heroin addiction that began by taking prescription medication when she was 15-years-old. Unfortunately, Morris’s story is not uncommon.
The New York Times reported the following data in October of this year:
- 75 percent of heroin addicts used prescription opioids before using heroin
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that fatal heroin overdoses almost quadrupled in a 10 year span and saw a 39 percent increase from 2012 to 2013
- The vast majority of new heroin users, some 90 percent, are white middle-class to wealthy individuals from the suburbs, despite heroin’s reputation as an inner-city issue
In the 60 Minutes segment, many of the parents who spoke to CBS said one of the hardest things to cope with was losing their children after they thought the disease of addiction had already been dealt with in treatment. A high percentage of fatal overdoses occur after a period of sobriety, when a relapsing individual uses the same amount of heroin their bodies previously tolerated.
Tracy Morrison, the mother of 25-year-old Jenna Morrison, who’s been to rehab 17 times and in and out of jail seven times, spoke to 60 Minutes about the stigma of addiction. “[Addiction] is a chronic, relapsing brain disease, period, amen, end of story,” she said, but noted that society views it differently than other diseases, such as cancer and diabetes.
Many experts feel that the blame for this crises lays, at least in part, with pharmaceutical companies. In 2007, three executives at Purdue pled guilty to misleading doctors about the risk of addiction with the company’s drug, oxycontin. In the early 2000s, many primary-care physicians were prescribing the powerful opioids for chronic headaches or back pain, increasing the dosage as their patients’ bodies adjusted and needed more.
When the clamp down on prescription painkillers finally arrived, many patients were already addicted. In order to avoid painful withdrawal symptoms, heroin, which is cheaper and readily available, became an easy alternative. And dealers, as the 60 Minutes piece highlights, have become increasingly innovative, even pressing heroin into pills that appear to be normal medication. Law enforcement agencies are struggling to keep pace.
Programs to train healthcare professionals on how to prescribe opioids are a step in the right direction. Understanding that addiction, both to drugs and alcohol, is a disease that must be treated is another. Getting addicted individuals into a rehab facility is a different matter altogether, though nationwide initiatives to increase access to treatment are gathering steam.
For families that have lost a loved one to a fatal overdose, the suffering is immense. The guilt is pervasive. As Brenda Stewart, who lost a child to heroin, told 60 Minutes, “Never say, ‘Not my child,’ because you never know. It could end up being your child.”
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