As if the opioid epidemic wasn’t concerning enough, new studies paint a grim picture of the role of addiction in America’s social fabric at present, highlighting the pressing need for access to quality addiction treatment. A 9.6 percent increase in overdose deaths from 2016 to 2017 contributed to a lowered life expectancy for Americans, according to new statistics released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.Over 70,000 people died of overdoses in 2017, more than any other year in recorded history, and there was a 45 percent rise in overdoses caused by synthetic opioids like fentanyl. The increase in overdose deaths was less than the 21 percent jump seen from 2015 to 2016, but the fact that the death rate continues to rise shows that more action is urgently needed to address the opioid epidemic.

Fentanyl Overdoses Are Behind the Increase

The steep rise in fentanyl overdoses is driving the increase in drug overdose deaths. In 2013, 3,000 people died of fentanyl overdoses; in 2017, that number had risen to over 27,000. Experts point to the rise in fentanyl deaths as a main contributor in the decline of life expectancy for three years in a row.

Fentanyl users are often introduced to the drug through legal or fraudulent prescriptions before switching to heroin once their prescriptions ran out. Much of what is sold on the streets as heroin is actually just a blend of fentanyls, which are more potent and can more easily be misdosed and lead to death. Overdose rates are lower in states where heroin is instead mixed with fentanyl.

How Did We Get Here?

The opioid crisis originated in the 1990s when drugs like OxyContin, an opioid painkiller, were prescribed heavily after pharmaceutical companies assured that the medications were not addictive. Opioids were overprescribed for a long time, leading to addiction in patients and the selling of surplus medication to illicit sellers. As prescription rates have fallen, availability and consumption of street opioids such as heroin and fentanyl have increased.

Another factor fueling the epidemic is the increased availability of illicit drugs as distributors branch out to suburban and rural areas all over America, most notably in the Midwest.

Some speculate that the driving force of the crisis is partially social. The opioid crisis of the 1860s and 1870s is often regarded as a response to the ravages of the Civil War and the social changes industrialization brought; the current crisis could be seen as a response to the deindustrialization of America, as the opioid crisis has particularly affected towns “whose civic life was built around a factory or a mine.”

What Can Be Done?

Efforts to address the opioid crisis have been largely focused on reining in prescriptions, funding painkiller research to find opioid alternatives and making it more difficult to get fentanyl across the border.

These are steps in the right direction, as is the recent allocation of a few billion dollars to fund addiction treatment and other public health services, but to adequately address a crisis of today’s proportions, it’s likely that tens of billions of dollars will need to be spent.

The stigma around addiction may be slowly fading, but this disease still is not treated with the same urgency and medical interventions as other serious illnesses are. Here are some key areas that need to improve for the epidemic to be effectively addressed.

Make Medication-Assisted Treatment Available

Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) has been shown to reduce mortality rates in addicts by at least 50 percent. And yet, a majority of treatment centers simply do not offer MAT as an opioid addiction treatment option. The medical community has been slow to accept MAT as a viable treatment method, with some arguing that the practice only serves to replace one drug with another. However, the therapy is slowly but surely being increasingly accepted as research continues to demonstrate high success rates.

Improve Standards of Care

As the proliferation of unethical treatment centers in Southern California has shown, the standard of care for addiction treatment is nowhere near where it should be. Only one in four opioid addicts received treatment in the past year, and though not all opioid users seek treatment, those who do are often uninsured or face long wait times to get into rehab facilities. And if they do get into rehab, their success often depends on the quality of the facility. Unfortunately, many facilities do not measure up due to lax regulation.

Integrate Addiction Treatment Into the Medical System

Despite advancements in the acceptance of addiction as a legitimate medical condition, the medical community has been slow to offer treatment. Many doctors don’t feel qualified to treat addiction, and some still blame patients for their addictions. It’s simply unconscionable that in the wake of an overdose crisis, doctors aren’t being trained to screen for and treat addiction with evidence-based techniques as they were during the HIV/AIDS crisis and Ebola and Zika outbreaks.

Make Naloxone More Widely Available

Naloxone is a drug that blocks the effects of opioids and can effectively treat an overdose. It is slowly being made more available to doctors and patients, but many US drugstores still don’t carry naloxone.

Address the Root Causes of Addiction

When mental illness is masked by addiction, getting treatment can be that much harder. In 2014 about 7.9 million people in the US had both a substance use problem and a mental illness. For these people, receiving the proper treatment for both conditions is essential, but the diagnosis and treatment of co-occurring disorders is much more complex and rare.

Getting The Help You Need

If you or a loved one is struggling with an opioid addiction, you should know that you have options. At Broadway Treatment Center, we want our clients to recognize that it is possible to live a fulfilling life without the use of drugs or alcohol.

We’re known for our award-winning detox program and dual-diagnosis addiction treatment plans, which benefit clients who are struggling with both addiction and mental health concerns. Our highly trained and certified addiction experts will work with you to develop a personalized treatment strategy that meets your unique needs. If you’re ready to leave opioids behind and start living your best life, contact us today to find out how we can help.