The impact of the opioid crisis in our country is staggering. Currently, there are more deaths from drug overdoses each year than there were during the entire Vietnam War. From 1999 to 2017, the number of annual drug overdose deaths in the United States skyrocketed from nearly 17,000 to more than 72,000, according to data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Two-thirds of these cases are from opioids.
How did we get here?
A recent analysis by the Associated Press supports that pharmaceutical companies misled the medical community about the addictive nature of opioids and subsequently flooded the market with an increasing number of opioid medications — at increasingly higher dosages — for decades.
In the 1990s, with the introduction of OxyContin, Big Pharma assured medical professionals that opioid pain relievers were not addictive, which led providers to prescribe them at increasing rates, and “as the nation’s opioid crisis grew, the pills got stronger.”
According to AP, “In 2012, as the death toll from the nation’s opioid crisis mounted, drug companies shipped out enough of the powerful and addictive painkillers for every man, woman and child in the U.S. to have nearly a 20-day supply.”
In Smith County alone, from 2006 to 2012, enough prescription opioids were distributed to provide all residents with over 17 days of medication annually.
By the time it became clear how addictive these medications are, it was too late, and widespread misuse, addiction and overdoses continued to grow to alarming rates, which led the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to officially declare a national public health emergency and implement a five-point plan to tackle the epidemic in 2017.
Agencies and lawmakers at the state and federal levels have been actively working to reduce and prevent opioid misuse nationwide ever since. It appears that government intervention is effective. Provisional data recently released from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics suggests the number of annual drug overdoses finally fell after ballooning for decades, from 72,000 in 2017 to 68,500 in 2018 — approximately 5 percent.
Now that we’re seeing what led so many Americans to be drawn to opioids and how it lured many of them into the throws of addiction, it’s imperative that we support policies that protect Americans and patients from this epidemic in the future.
Cenikor Foundation, a leader in providing quality behavioral health care services through a continuum of care for adults and adolescents, is doing its part to thwart the crisis by conducting research in Texas’ rural areas under a Health Resources & Services Administration Rural Opioid Response Program-Planning grant. By partnering with the Texas Rural Health Consortium, we were able to assess needs related to prevention, treatment and recovery in Bosque and Hill Counties — extremely rural, underserved areas where addressing the opioid crisis is more challenging.
Rural areas in particular have a more difficult time with substance use prevention and treatment, so we felt it was imperative to evaluate the unique challenges these communities face in confronting the epidemic and to identify ways to help them thwart and remedy it. We are hopeful that by identifying needs in areas like these early on, we can prevent the crisis from proliferating in Texas in the future.
Prevention is only half the battle. Many organizations like ours focus on another aspect of the picture — addiction treatment, which is vital to restoring the lives that have already been damaged. To date in 2019, 1,351 clients have been admitted to Cenikor for opioid abuse.
This is a national problem playing out on a very personal level, and it is critical that we collectively support individual healing. Whether you or someone you love is searching for detoxification, shorter-term residential or outpatient services, and whether you are insured, uninsured or underinsured, there is someone out there who can help. For every unique situation, there is a door to successful recovery.
Bill Bailey has served as president and CEO of Cenikor Foundation since 2004. The foundation operates a drug and alcohol treatment center in Tyler.