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Heroin has one of the strongest stigmas of any drug attached to it, yet it’s rise into all sections of society has reached epidemic proportions. According to the CDC, the rate of heroin use has more than doubled in young adults (18-25 years old) in the past decade. Use among women and non-Hispanic whites has also doubled. The average income of users has gone up in the past decade. With this increase in use comes a 286% increase in heroin-related overdose deaths, making this a serious epidemic. How has a drug that is so stigmatized also become so popular? What leads people to use heroin in the first place? What do we do about this epidemic?
The CDC study showed that nearly half the people who used heroin were also addicted to prescription opioids. A typical story starts when someone is prescribed a painkiller such as codeine, fentanyl, oxycodone or morphine. They take the pills to manage pain after surgery or to manage chronic pain. The story can unfold in numerous ways from there. Often, people don’t use all the pills they were prescribed, and their son or daughter uses them to get high. Other stories involve using all the pills and still being in pain, or developing a tolerance and using a higher dosage. In many cases, people get hooked on opioid painkillers, which are highly addictive. Prescription painkillers are much more expensive than heroin, so many people transition to using heroin.
While almost half of heroin users start with painkillers, other drug use also increases the odds that someone will use heroin. According to the CDC, people who are addicted to marijuana are three times more likely to be addicted to heroin, and those who are addicted to cocaine increase that risk to fifteen times, while those hooked on prescription opioid painkillers are 40 times more likely to be addicted to heroin.
All the above statistics may seem dire, but they do leave us hints for how to prevent this epidemic from spreading to the ones we love. Since prescription opioids pose the single greatest risk factor, let’s start by looking at how we can minimize the risk there. Prescription opioid painkillers can be very effective at treating the pain, but they are not promoting healing. Many people don’t heal by the time their prescription runs out because they have not been motivated by the pain to continue to put effort into healing their body. Here are some ways to minimize the use of painkillers and some motivating reasons to do so (just in case the risk of a serious addiction isn’t motivation enough)
If you suspect that you or our loved one is becoming dependent on opioids in any form, seek help as soon as possible. The sooner one starts treatment, the more likely it is to succeed. Sandstone Care offers a continuum of care for heroin and opioid addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders. If your teen or young adult is using other drugs or alcohol, consider addressing that as early as well. Young people are particularly susceptible to addiction. Teens and young adults are also very adaptive and respond to treatment quickly, so address any substance abuse issues promptly.
People who start using drugs or alcohol in their teens are more likely to have substance abuse problems later in life. The surgeon general’s report on alcohol and drug addiction states that those who begin drinking before they turn 15 are four times more likely to develop an alcohol addiction than those who wait until they are over 20. The main reason that young people are more susceptible to addiction is that their brains are still developing. Studies show that our brains are growing and changing into our mid-twenties. Significant late growth happens in the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain responsible for abstract thought and reasoning. As this section of the brain grows and neural pathways are strengthened between our thinking brain and our lizard brain, we develop better impulse control. Adolescence is characterized by heightened risk-taking and impulsivity. While in many ways the adolescent brain is as smart as that of an adult’s (over 25), the ability to fully conceptualize long-term consequences is a work in progress.
Combined with increased impulsivity and risk-taking, teens and young adults place a high value on social standing. Experimenting with drugs fits into all of this. Drinking or smoking marijuana, a common starting place for teens is both cool and excitingly risky to them. Teens may continue to use drugs and shrug off the consequences, even as they become more evident. The brain’s development is stunted by drug use, with even low levels of consistent use having long-term effects. One thing that happens is that young users strengthen the neural pathways that encourage the instant gratification of the “high” feeling, instead of working on pathways that build resilience and the ability to delay gratification or stay with discomfort. Many young users have a strong urge to turn to substances when they experience stress, anxiety, or other negative feelings, putting them at a high risk for addiction.
Even if your teen or young adult is not using heroin or prescription opioids, they may be hurting their brains with other substances, putting them in a higher risk bracket for an addiction of any kind. Luckily, there is a lot of attention on both the heroin epidemic and teen drug abuse right now. The surgeon general’s report on drug and alcohol use in 2016 was the first of its kind. Take advantage of the attention this topic is receiving to start an open dialogue with your peers and your children. Be proactive if you suspect that your teen or young adult is using. Find out more about how Sandstone Care Treats drug abuse and opioid addiction. Call us today with any questions or to see if our program is right for your loved one.