I’ve spent almost every summer since I was little in Tarpon Springs, Florida, the town with the highest Greek population in the US. With a population of just under 26,000, I enjoyed the close-knit community and the opportunity to see my family. I even lived there for five years. However, as I grew older I noticed a pattern. The people I loved most, my family, were dying. When my family arrived in the United States from Greece over 50 years ago, they had prepared for the changes life in another country would bring. What they could never prepare for or imagine was the hidden epidemic that would soon sweep the nation: opioid addiction.
According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) the first wave of the “Opioid Epidemic” began in the 1990s when an increased number of medical patients were prescribed opioids for their pain treatment and management. This led to overdose deaths involving prescription opioids skyrocketing since at least 1999. Florida is a leading state in opioid addiction and death, and Pinellas County, where Tarpon Springs, Florida resides, is in the top five leading counties.
Growing up in poverty made this experience even harder on my young mind, taking a large toll on my mental health. I could not comprehend why my family would choose this path. I only later realized that it was not a choice. They were stuck in the cycle of addiction that was being passed through generations and had no plan of stopping. When families are struck by poverty, it can be difficult to stay afloat. Often, people will turn to drugs in order to escape this harsh reality. Later, the children of those using drugs may remember that behavior and see it as familiar or acceptable, therefore passing down the addiction.
According to the Addiction Center of America, “Someone with a stable income is less likely to have an addiction than someone with no financial security. Years of data show that addiction rates are twice as high among the unemployed than those who have jobs, and in many cases, the stress of unemployment leads to substance abuse.”
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, overdose deaths across the nation have spiked to unprecedented highs, partly due to increased isolation and a rise in severe depression. The issue of lethal addictions is not new to the COVID era, and the deaths will not stop when the pandemic ends.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, roughly 21 to 29 percent of patients prescribed opioids for chronic pain misuse them. This poses a tough question: Is it time to limit the usage of opioids in the medical field?
When people hurt themselves, they go to the doctor in an attempt to solve the issue. If the issue regards moderate to severe pain, opioids like oxycontin, methadone, morphine and buprenorphine will automatically be considered for treatment by most doctors. Pharmaceutical enterprises are targeting the underprivileged, as access to medical care in low-income areas becomes more sustainable, opioids will be a large part of their services. Doctors, nurses and other medical professionals need to have more thorough assessments to determine if opioid usage is truly necessary or if the issue can be fixed with something like physical therapy or a less easily addictive pain relief medication. If something like this is implemented, it may limit the number of people who form an accidental opioid addiction.
According to the CDC, internal efforts to stop opioid addiction are becoming increasingly popular among medical personnel. Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs (PDMP) is one of the most promising of these efforts so far.
“PDMPs have illustrated changes in prescribing behaviors, use of multiple providers by patients, and decreased substance abuse treatment admissions,” states the CDC. “These changes have significant potential for ensuring that the utility and promise of PDMPs are realized.”
Another way to proactively solve this issue would be for communities to work together and offer help to their opioid-addicted members, instead of shying away from them in fear. One option that is simple in theory but complicated in practice would be to rid the community of stigma regarding addiction/getting treatment for addiction, and to encourage people struggling to ask for help and support. Although this seems like an easy task, there are years worth of built-up stigma and misinformation regarding the topic. Breaking down these barriers is the first step to supporting those struggling with addiction.
Secondly, more funding needs to be distributed to ethical rehabilitation centers in small towns. Often, when people go into rehab for opioid addiction, they are forced to travel to the closest major city so that they can receive the best treatment possible. This not only isolates the patient from their family but sets them free in a large city that may be high in opioid usage when they complete their treatment. By moving treatment centers closer and ensuring that they are ethically maintained, patients can remain in a familiar place and can make an easy transition back into society.
Although these are not the complete solutions to small-town America’s opioid crisis, they will be a start that can propel the nation in the right direction. With enough time and support from their communities, It is my belief that any opioid addict has the chance to recover.
Resources for help with addiction:
SAMHSA National Helpline -1-800-662-4357
Georgia Crisis & Access Line – 1-800-715-4225 (& free MyGCAL app)
NAMI-GA non-emergency mental health helpline – 770-408-0625 (and resources online)
Poison control and overdose hotline – 1-800-222-1222
Resources for education & prevention materials: GUIDE, Inc – a nonprofit in Gwinnett County serving youth around Georgia – has resources and trainings for youth organizations. Click here.