Currently, America is experiencing a dangerous, deadly trend unseen before. The number of opioid overdoses seen throughout the country is increasing at a devastating rate of 200 percent, costing an estimated 91 people their lives daily and totaling 47,000 annually.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly half a million people have lost their lives between the years 2000 and 2014 because of opioid addiction. This number is comparable to losing the entire population of Wyoming.
Numerous factors have contributed to the creation of what the National Institute on Drug Abuse describes as the “environmental availability” that allows for this epidemic to exist. A rapid increase in the number of prescriptions written coupled with the societal acceptance of medication creates a dangerous setting for drug abuse to exist.
From 2000 to 2010, the number of prescription opioids — such as oxycodone, hydrocodone and methadone — sold to pharmacies, hospitals and doctor’s offices have quadrupled, despite the fact that Americans do not report an increase in the amount of pain they experience.
This overprescribing of medication makes both legal and illegal opioids — like heroin — more accessible than ever before. It is much simpler for Americans to get their hands on these highly addictive and, oftentimes, dangerous medications.
As of 2012, an estimated 467,000 Americans are addicted to heroin alone, and this number is only rising.
“This is something I don’t expect to see change in the near future,” said Thomas Cook, Ph.D.,chair of the department of Public Health. “The epidemic doesn’t have any racial, social or ethnic boundaries. It can affect anyone and everyone.”
Although the effects that the opioid epidemic have on the country are irreversible, efforts can be made to ameliorate the situation, help those who are struggling with addiction and lower the number of opioid related deaths.
To heal a society that has grown accustomed to opioid prescriptions, understanding of the dangers of these drugs and the detriments they may cause is crucial. This allows for people to better recognize the warning signs of addictions in those they know and seek help sooner.
On Oct. 2, Mercyhurst University and the Erie Times-News joined the initiative to help educate the Erie community on treatment resources, the criminal justice system’s response to the epidemic and hear family’s first-hand experiences.
“It is important for our community to be knowledgeable about the risks of abuse of opioids – whether in the form of pain medications or in street drugs,” said Judy Smith, Ph.D., director of the Health and Counseling Center. “Education is the first part of prevention. This epidemic may touch someone we know and love, and being aware of how to help, refer and assist allows us to move people towards help.”
For those who are interested in being a direct part of the change, resources on campus are available.
“Students interested in getting involved in prevention and recovery initiatives may want to talk with their faculty members about opportunities for internship or practicum experiences in agencies dedicated to these efforts,” said Smith. “These organizations often welcome the efforts and enthusiasm that our students can bring.”
Cook recommends that students take a mental health first aid course — offered on campus — to recognize signs of addiction, the underlying causes and what can be done to help those in a dangerous situation.
“This education can last a lifetime and definitely help those who need it,” Cook said.
While the future is unclear, student, faculty and community commitment to societal change may be the difference between continued overdose deaths and a healthier, brighter future.