The abuse of, and addiction to, opioids is a serious problem that affects the social, health, and economic welfare of the society. Opioids are a group of drugs that include heroin as well as legal pain medication such as Hydrocodone, Oxycodone, Morphine, Codeine, and other prescription pain relievers. It is estimated that opiate abuse/addiction costs Americans approximately $484 billion annually. It is also responsible for 50% of serious crimes in the United States. To learn more about the social worker’s role in this epidemic, checkout this infographic created by the University of New England’s Online MSW Degree Program.

UNE MSW Pain Killers & Heroin Infographic

Pain medication and heroin continue to be the fastest rising addictions in the country. For opiate-based drugs, a high potential for addiction exists, whether or not they come in prescription form. Essentially, just because a drug comes in prescription form does not mean it is safe to take whenever one is in the mood.
Statistics on Opiate Abuse and Addiction

Statistics on opiate addiction paint a surprising and clear picture of the effects these drugs can have when abused. For instance, the quantities of prescription pain medication sold in the United States and the number of deaths due to overdose have nearly quadrupled. According to the CDC, in 2010 alone, enough prescription opioids were prescribed to medicate every adult citizen around-the-clock for one month. Sadly, about 78 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose. In fact, more people died in 2014 from drug overdose than any year on record, and 60% of those deaths involved an opioid. To emphasize the gravity of the problem, statistics show that the United States makes up a mere 4.6% of the global population but consumes 80% of its opioids. In addition, Americans consume 99% of the world’s Hydrocodone, the opiate that is in Vicodin.

People Most at Risk

Opioid use has increased across the United States among both men and women, all income levels, and most age groups. According to the CDC, some of the greatest increases were seen in demographic groups with traditionally low rates of heroin use. For example, people with higher incomes, the privately insured, and women. Not only are Americans using more heroin, they are also abusing many other drugs, especially prescription opioid medication and cocaine.
People who are most at risk of heroin abuse and addiction are those who are addicted to prescription pain medication, those addicted to cocaine, those addicted to alcohol and marijuana, and those living in large metropolitan areas. In addition, males, non-Hispanic whites, 18 to 25-year olds, and individuals without insurance or Medicaid are also at risk of heroin abuse and addiction.

When it comes to prescription painkillers, many more men than women overdose and die from such drugs. Individuals living in rural areas are more likely to overdose on prescription pain medication than those living in big cities. Other people with the highest rates of prescription painkiller overdose include middle-aged adults, whites, Alaska natives, and American Indians.

Turning to Heroin

Heroin is a highly addictive and illegal opioid drug. A heroin overdose can cause shallow and slow breathing, a coma, or even death. In addition, when an individual injects heroin, he/she is at risk of bacterial infections of the skin, heart, and bloodstream, as well as long-term viral infections such as Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, and HIV.

In a 2014 survey of individuals in opioid addiction treatment, approximately 94% of respondents said that they chose to use heroin because prescription pain medication was significantly more expensive and difficult to obtain. Past abuse of prescription medication is the greatest risk factor for heroin introduction and abuse. In fact, 80% of new heroin users started out abusing prescription pain medication. In the past decade, heroin use more than doubled among people aged between 18 and 25 years.

In order to respond to the problem of heroin abuse and addiction, steps must be taken to prevent individuals from taking heroin, to reduce addiction, and to reverse a heroin overdose. To prevent people from starting heroin, stakeholders must find ways to reduce prescription medication abuse. There must also be an improvement in prescribing practices of opioid painkillers as well as an early identification of high-risk individuals.

To reduce addiction levels, patients should have access to medication-assisted treatment, which combines the use of medication with behavioral therapies and counseling. To reverse a heroin overdose, there should be an expansion in the use of Naloxone, which is a drug that can reverse the effects of overdose when administered early.

Impact of Opioid Addiction on Special Populations

In 2014, more than 465,000 adolescents were nonmedical users of prescription painkillers, with approximately 168,000 having an addiction to the drugs. Young people often share their unused painkillers, unaware of the risks of nonmedical opioid use. Most of the adolescent users are given the drugs free by a relative or a friend. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to suffer from chronic pain and be given higher doses of painkillers. Thus, they may become dependent on such drugs more quickly and easily than men. This explains why prescription painkiller overdose deaths have increased so drastically among women.

The Role of the Social Worker in Responding to the Heroin and Painkillers Abuse Epidemic

Stress is one of the major factors that push individuals towards drugs. Treating individuals and families with concerns regarding depression, pain, anxiety, pain with addiction, and other medical conditions are in a social worker’s purview. These are the areas where the qualities of a social worker truly shine. However, to deal with the epidemic effectively, social workers need to supplement their traditional knowledge and skills by learning the complex range of treatment plans for chronic pain; how to assess the risk of drug dependence and abuse if prescription opioids are used; and the nuances of a patient’s health care network.
Since drug addiction can affect several aspects of individuals’ lives, social workers play an important role when helping such individuals. For example, they may help them find stable housing, offer support to their families, and ensure they are getting adequate medical attention for their abuse and addiction.
The Federal government is also providing resources and educational training to healthcare providers to help them make informed decisions and ensure the proper prescribing of opioid pain medication. Through the Affordable Care Act, the government is also improving access to drug abuse treatment services.

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