Tough Times Feed America’s Opioid Epidemic: What You Need To Know

Tough Times Feed America's Opioid Epidemic: What You Need To Know, @lynnrwebstermd, Lynn R Webster, MD

The Heroin Epidemic in Huntington, W. VA recently published a story called, “In America’s drug death capital: How heroin is scarring the next generation,Wayne Drash and Max Blau, who reported the story, write intelligently about the heroin epidemic in Huntington, West Virginia. They tell the story the way it should be told.

Drash and Blau highlight the fact that “…recent decades have been unkind to Huntington. Factories that made supplies for West Virginia’s coal mines shuttered. Jobs grew scarce. From 1970 to 2010, the town lost more than 25,000 residents. Block after block of once beautiful two-story craftsman homes have fallen into disrepair, the porches leaning, paint peeling from clapboard siding. In a town with a median household income of $28,673 — where nearly one in three live in poverty — heroin has flourished over the past decade, particularly as officials cracked down on pill mills and supplies dried up. The heroin, officials say, made its way from Mexico’s coastline to the Midwestern heartland to the Appalachian Mountains.”

It’s easy to see that Huntington’s extreme poverty has made it particularly vulnerable to the heroin epidemic. Huntington obviously isn’t alone. NPR’s Morning Edition recently published an article about the bleak economic conditions in Springfield, Ohio.

The Heroin Epidemic in Springfield, Ohio 

Springfield, Ohio is 127 miles from Huntington, W. VA, but the two cities are economically much closer than that. Fewer high-paying manufacturing jobs, according to the NPR article, have led to an increase in heroin use.

Charles Rollins runs an addiction recovery clubhouse in Springfield with his twin brother, Michael. “Drug and alcohol abuse hinder the people of this community severely,” according to Charles. His brother, Michael, adds that “…addiction isn’t just battering young people and their families. It harms the local economy, since addicts spend their cash on drugs, and can’t be relied on for steady work.”

Drash and Blau point out that law enforcement is also contributing to the heroin problem. They write about the drug court’s limitations. “Addicts can only get help once they’re in the criminal justice system, a point where families have already suffered the consequences. For those who want assistance before that point, it can be hard to find.”

Some see that drug courts are a good thing, and they are, when the alternative is no treatment. In fact, drug courts are doing great work, particularly in recognizing and meeting the specific needs of women prisoners. As the National Institute on Drug Abuse points out, “Women in prison are likely to have a different set of problems and needs than men, presenting particular treatment challenges that may call for tailored approaches.”

But being processed through drug courts comes with a price. It labels people as criminals and often limits a person’s ability to obtain a job.

Addiction is Costly 

In addition, it is costly. People with addiction typically are broke because of their disease. They can’t afford the legal system, so they often cannot afford their fines and monitoring fees that the court imposes. This creates a revolving door with the justice system.

Many ask why the U.S. has a greater opioid problem than other countries. There are many probable factors, but certainly one of the biggest reasons is this. We have stigmatized the disease of addiction, largely by criminalizing it, instead of preventing it and providing treatment for it.

As authors Drash and Blau say, barriers to treatment are: “Fear of rejection. Fear of judgment.” Poverty only adds to the stigma. To prevent the disease, we must improve life’s opportunities in these communities. Good paying jobs with a hopeful future would go a long way to reversing the addiction problem.

Addiction, Poverty, and Social Issues 

Sam Quinones, author of Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, covers the same truth: that the disease can infest an economically-challenged community. Quinones points out that social issues, and poverty, are key driving factors.

Addiction is a powerful disease in America’s communities, and we need to address it appropriately through affordable treatment and prevention. To prevent the disease, we must understand why people choose to use drugs. And we must tackle the social, economic, and legal factors that drive those choices.

Purchase my book, The Painful Truth: What Chronic Pain Is Really Like and Why It Matters to Each of Us (available on Amazon), or read a free excerpt here.

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