According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), opioid abuse and addiction is a serious global problem affecting the health, social, and economic welfare of all societies, including the United States. Two million individuals in our country had a prescription opioid use disorder in 2015, and 591,000 suffered from a heroin use disorder; prescription drug misuse alone cost the Nation a whopping $78.5 billion in expenses related to law enforcement, health care, and lost productivity.
What is causing this problem, and why is it plaguing our country now? More people have access to opioids than ever before; the total number of pain relievers prescribed in the United States escalated from around 76 million in 1991 to nearly 207 million in 2013. Opioids include three types of drugs that people use to reduce pain: prescription opioids (e.g., oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, methadone), fentanyl (a synthetic opioid pain reliever), and heroin (an illegal opioid).
People start out using opioid medications to relieve pain. Then, because these drugs affect brain regions involved with reward and produce a sense of well-being, it is easy for people to start abusing opioids to intensify their experience and to take the drug in ways other than those prescribed.
This abuse comes with a very high toll; the number of unintentional overdose deaths from prescription pain relievers has soared in the United States, more than quadrupling since 1999.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is playing a major role in helping stop this growing epidemic, and I am heartened by the Government’s efforts to face this problem head on. In May 2017, HHS announced it had made more than $70 million available to help communities fight the opioid crisis; this announcement followed a separate award of $485 million in grants in April 2017. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration will administer these funds to address opioid abuse, which will support prevention, treatment, and recovery initiatives.
HHS Secretary Tom Price says that the Department is “committed to bringing everything the Federal Government has to bear on this health crisis. Building partnerships and providing resources to State and local governments as well as nongovernment organizations are absolutely critical to this effort.”
On an individual level, there is a lot you can do to join the fight. Educate yourself on what is involved with addiction. Talk with your kids about prescription drug abuse. Your sister, child, close friend, or coworker could be affected by opioid abuse. If someone you know is struggling with addiction, visit this NIH website to find out what you can do to help and learn about what resources are available in your area. You could save a life.