U.S. Surgeon General Turns the Spotlight On Opioid Addiction Treatment

Addiction is nothing new. As long as there have been addictive substances, addiction has flourished across eras and cultures, wreaking havoc on the lives of users and their loved ones. But in recent years, something has changed. Where addiction, particularly opioid addiction, was once seen as a matter of moral failing, the public is now increasingly understanding it as a medical condition. Part of this is due to scientific technologies that have allowed researchers to immediately observe the impact of drugs on the brain. But it is also due to something else, something much more devastating: opioid addiction has come home.

No longer the purview of a small subset of marginalized people, opioid addiction now crosses socioeconomic and geographical barriers, infiltrating communities and families across the country and from all walks of life. Since 1999, unintentional overdose deaths from prescription pain relievers has more than quadrupled, and we are currently “losing 78 people per day to this senseless and preventable epidemic.” With over 2.1 million people in the United States suffering from prescription opioid use disorder and half a million struggling with heroin addiction, however, overdose numbers represent only a minute proportion of the total population affected by opioid addiction.

The scope of opioid addiction is now so broad that it is no longer possible to ignore. Law enforcement, public health officials, and grieving parents, spouses, and children of those whose lives have been taken by opioids are creating a chorus of voices calling for improved opioid addiction treatment and an end to opioid-induced overdoses. And, finally, it seems that the government is listening.

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U.S. Surgeon General Will Report on Substance Abuse, Addiction, and Health

In the fall of 2015, the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office announced its plan to release the first-ever report on substance use, addiction, and health in 2016. The announcement came at the Unite to Face Addiction rally, a historic public demonstration organized to bring awareness to the epidemic of addiction and demand meaningful policy change to stem the tide of destruction. “We’re going to look at the best science on everything, from heroin to marijuana,” U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy told the crowd last October. “And we’re going to launch a national campaign to tackle the prescription drug crisis because we know that someone dies from an opioid overdose every 24 minutes in this country.”

In a recent interview with Health News Florida, Dr. Murthy expanded on his vision for the report and why opioid addiction—which has ravaged communities for decades—is only being addressed on this scale now. Dr. Murthy explains:

Part of the problem is that 20 or 30 years ago, when we though about addiction broadly, we thought of it as a problem that certain people faced and certain communities dealt with. We thought of it, quite frankly, as a moral failing, as a bad choice.

But treating addiction as a moral failing is rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of addiction. As such, it is doomed to fail and, indeed, it has failed; opioid use is now more widespread than ever before. What’s more, such an approach only contributes to the stigma and silence surrounding opioid addiction that pushes users deeper into self-destruction and obscures hope of recovery. Demonizing addicts isn’t just unproductive, it is actually counterproductive.

We have to be sure that people see it for what it is, which is a chronic illness, that we have to treat with the same urgency and the same skill, the same compassion, as we would diabetes or heart disease. Because the truth is that we shouldn’t treat addiction any differently and the fact that we are late to the game in catching up with that mindset, the fact that we didn’t recognize that 20, 30 years ago, has meant that many people have gone without treatment who could have lived fulfilling lives.

The goal of the report, then, is to not only “bring together the best science and how to treat substance abuse disorders,” but also to “move the country toward a new way of thinking about addiction” that helps addicts rather than compounds harm.

Medical Solutions for a Medical Illness

Although the report is not scheduled to be released until later this year, Dr. Murthy is already giving us a glimpse into his office’s primary concerns regarding the opioid epidemic. “As we face trying to address the prescription opioid addiction crisis [and] the heroin crisis, we have to ensure that we are […] getting medication-assisted treatments to people,” he says, reflecting the office’s commitment to truly treating addiction as a medical condition using evidence-based medical practices. Indeed, medication-assisted therapies (MATs) such as methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexoneare considered integral to opioid addiction treatment, providing much-needed relief from withdrawal symptoms and significantly improving outcomes.

Unfortunately, most people who could benefit from MATs don’t receive them. According to a 2014 article in The New England Journal of Medicine, “Of the 2.5 million Americans 12 years of age or older who abused or were dependent on opioids in 2012, fewer than 1 million received MAT,” despite the fact that they have been empirically proven to facilitate recovery and reduce risk of overdose. The problem is particularly widespread in the very areas hardest hit by the opioid addiction epidemic: rural and remote communities. As such, “expanding access to MATs is a crucial component of the effort to help patients recover,” and this must include access in currently underserved areas of the country.

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Finding Effective Opioid Addiction Treatment Now

While the recovery community is hopeful that the Surgeon General’s report will be a meaningful step toward helping more people with opioid addiction access critical treatment services, it is also important to note that many of the best practices the report is likely to detail are already in practice in select treatment programs across the country. At Alta Mira, for example, we offer MATs to all of our clients struggling with addiction to substances for which medications are available, including opioid addiction, helping you recover as comfortably and safely as possible.

However, comprehensive opioid addiction treatment requires more than just medication; to truly heal, psychosocial supports in the form of psychotherapy, holistic and experiential therapies, and 12-step support groups all play a vital role in creating effective and transformative treatment experiences. After all, addiction isn’t just an issue of chemical dependency, but a complex neuroadaptive, emotional, and behavioral phenomenon that typically touches on our deepest experiences of ourselves and our personal histories. As such, it is essential that you gain both the insight and the skills you need to make lasting neurological, psychological, and behavioral changes and break free from the damaging patterns that drove your addiction. Through intensive, evidence-based treatment and thoughtfully implemented continuing care, you can overcome opioid addiction and create a strong foundation for ongoing recovery.

Alta Mira offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with drug addiction as well as co-occurring mental health disorders and process addictions. Contact us to learn more about our innovative suite of programs and how we can help you or your loved one on the path to healing.