As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, we must keep focus on another worsening emergency: the drug overdose crisis.
Predicted data for 2020 shows that 93,000 people died from drug overdoses, marking the largest increase in overdose deaths ever recorded. Seventy-five percent of those deaths involved an opioid, and this rise is largely driven by illicit fentanyl, a synthetic opioid.
These staggering increases in overdose deaths could be mitigated by expanding access to evidence-based addiction treatments. However, to do so, we must confront the entrenched stigma surrounding addiction and the medications we use to treat it.
A treatable disorder
Recognizing addiction as a medical condition, and not a moral failing, is necessary for effective prevention and treatment. Addiction to opioids — the drugs responsible for most overdose deaths — is treatable using safe and effective medications, but only 18 percent of people with opioid addiction receive them. Treatment-seeking is impeded by stigma towards people with addiction, which is fed by the distorted belief that they can control their drug taking.
Unfortunately, people with addiction often encounter stigma in healthcare settings. Those seeking help may be distrusted, mistreated, and even turned away by medical professionals. This may lead them to avoid primary, reproductive, and prenatal care, and to miss opportunities to prevent or treat conditions such as HIV, hepatitis, and mental illnesses.
Reducing stigma for individuals with addiction is challenged by the fact that the disease itself impacts the brain in a way that changes social behaviors. It can be extremely difficult for loved ones to understand behaviors that may result from the brain circuitry changes that characterize addiction, like stealing and lying, or the neglect of relationships. Recognizing that these behaviors are due to drug-induced changes in brain function is key for destigmatizing this disorder.
Confronting addiction requires harm reduction, treatment, and compassion, not punishment and stigma. While expansion of access to quality medical care and proven interventions like syringe service programs is vital to reducing opioid overdoses, illness, and death, a broader approach that encompasses social supports is critical to address the overdose crisis.