True, we are facing an epidemic of opioid overdose deaths, and everyone from the CDC to the President is focused on solving this issue. But this isn’t the first time this has happened. It’s actually our nation’s third heroin and opioid epidemic. 

Shifting the mindset

Historically, we’ve seen one drug crisis after another: cannabis, stimulants, cocaine, opioids etc. We’ve attacked and beat each one, yet we’re always left to tackle the next. We’ve treated each epidemic with drug-specific solutions, but for the past 100 years, nothing has worked to prevent the next crisis.

What we’ve missed is that addiction is a brain illness not limited to substances. We aren’t facing an “opioid problem” or “heroin problem.” We’re facing a biological brain illness. Addiction as an illness involves dysfunction in the brain's reward center and related circuitry, and drug use is a symptom.

“We aren’t facing an ‘opioid problem’ or ‘heroin problem.’ We’re facing a biological brain illness.”

Seeing the entire illness

Most times, the illness is there before the first drug, and it’s still there after the drug use stops. If we focus on “fixing” the substance use and not the brain function, we’ve only partially treated an individual suffering from addiction and relapse is highly likely. Just as we wouldn’t treat the symptoms of cancer, but rather treat the disease itself, the same applies for addiction. If we don’t treat the disease of addiction, but rather its symptoms, we’ll get the same results: the nation’s next drug problem. 

Yes, people are dying of opioid overdoses, and we should continue the great work to stop that. For example, solutions such as suboxone or naloxone are highly important and useful. However, we must simultaneously realize that addiction won't stop with opioids. We must broaden our scope and use medications and psychosocial treatment to treat the whole illness. Otherwise, we can’t expect our results to change.