Last November, the United States Surgeon General issued the first-ever report on addiction in America, detailing the current crisis.
“In 2015, over 27 million people in the United States reported current use of illicit drugs or misuse of prescription drugs,” the report stated. “Alcohol and drug misuse and related disorders are major public health challenges that are taking an enormous toll on individuals, families, and society.”
In spite of this crisis, opioids — powerful, narcotic painkillers like Vicodin and Oxycontin — are still easily available in America, making addiction and accidental overdose even more possible.
How addiction starts
Sometimes, patients recovering from even minor surgeries are discharged with far more opiate pills than they need, says Dr. Clayton Chau, regional executive medical director at St. Joseph Hoag Health’s Institute for Mental Health & Wellness.
And there is no age limit for addiction. “We’re seeing an increasing number of people over 60, with no prior history of addiction, being introduced to these medications for legitimate ailments, who then become addicted,” says Marshall Moncrief, regional executive director at St. Joseph Hoag Health’s Institute for Mental Health & Wellness.
Opioids, patients quickly discover, numb both physical and psychological pain. “They become very addictive, very easily,” says Dr. Chau.
Thrill-seeking younger people often find opioids right in their own homes. “They find prescription pills in their parents’ and friends’ medicine cabinets,” says Moncrief. But experimenting with prescription narcotics is extremely dangerous. “These chemicals are powerful, and quickly grab developing brains,” he says. “It doesn’t take people long to gravitate toward heroin.”
The solution: comprehensive pain care
Doctors can be part of the solution through by insisting on follow-up visits and by talking to patients about all medications they are taking.
“Doctors care about their patients, but they have very short time to assess all their issues, and these pills are effective,” Moncrief says.
Dr. Chau suggests a better way to treat pain: Implement a comprehensive pain treatment that includes physical therapy, counseling, and alternative treatments like acupuncture, chiropractic.
Addiction is a chronic illness
Some people think of addiction as a character failure. But medical experts know it’s far more powerful than that.
“It’s a legitimate disease of the brain that deserves all the clinical capabilities and compassion we give every other illness,” says Moncrief. Not only is there is a genetic component to addiction, he says, but long-term narcotic abuse can lead to brain alterations.
Still, the stigma attached to addiction or any kind of mental illness, keeps suffering people and their families isolated, confused and afraid.
“Today somebody getting a cancer diagnosis is asking, ‘What are my treatment options?’” says Moncrief. “Their community is gathering resources to battle this together, and their church has already started on casseroles. At the same time, somebody who just got arrested with a needle or a bottle of opiates is the last to admit there is a problem, and their family is either shrouded in shame or confused about who to turn to. And they are certainly not trying to rally the church for casseroles.”
Hope in recovery
Moncrief and Dr. Chau want individuals and families to reach out for help, even if a loved one is resistant to treatment.
“Just like other chronic illnesses, the earlier you get help or intervene with entire family, the better chance of success,” says Moncrief.
The recovery process has the potential to unify families. Addicts who simply want to kick their addiction, find they become more wholly connected to themselves and others when they get clean. “There is tremendous hope in recovery,” says Moncrief. “That’s the model we look to here.”
Doctors and experts who are part of St. Joseph Hoag Health’s Institute for Mental Health & Wellness provide the most comprehensive addiction treatment in Orange County, says Moncrief.