Commentary: The Most Under-Recognized Public Health Crisis

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We lose nearly 130 people a day to drug overdoses. It is the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, and the loss is felt most acutely by the families left behind. By doing a better job of helping families and their addicted children, we can most effectively reduce these deaths and the accompanying pain and suffering.

Nothing tears apart the fabric of a family quite like having a child who’s struggling with drugs or alcohol. In my experience, parents of these kids are usually overwhelmed by feelings of guilt, shame and fear. Will their child be alive the next morning? When they most need a comprehensive evaluation of their child’s condition and evidence-based treatment options as “standards of care” to consider, they instead find conventional wisdom from well-meaning friends and recommendations from under-trained healthcare professionals. In an age when most people use the Internet to access health information for their family, there is very little reliable science-based information available online, a far cry from the abundant resources for all other adolescent and young adult health issues and disorders.

I am haunted by a mother’s story about her two daughters. Her elder daughter developed juvenile diabetes. She was very sick, in and out of the hospital for many months. After a correct diagnosis and beginning insulin therapy, her health began to improve. Still, she struggled with her condition and required lifestyle changes that made her feel different from her friends. The parent’s doctor suggested programs of support and training for the family, and after a period of adjustment the daughter and family began to thrive again.

A few years later, the mother’s younger daughter developed an addiction to opiate pain medications, after suffering a serious sports injury. Always quiet and shy, this daughter became sullen and withdrawn. She started acting out, embarrassing her family. The question everyone silently asked, “Why won’t she just stop?” Friends and loved ones all insisted that she wouldn’t stop until “she hit bottom,” and even their doctor didn’t think her addiction was a medical problem. Anything loving and positive the mother did toward this daughter was seen as “enabling” and as making her daughter worse. Feeling like she was out of options and following the advice of her closest friends, the mother finally told her daughter she had to leave home. Less than two weeks later, the daughter was found by police in an abandoned car – she had died from an overdose of heroin.

The mother’s regret and message to anyone who would listen was “Why didn’t I care for my younger daughter and fight for her healing with the same determination and love as my other daughter? Why wasn’t I told that there are other, better options and even new medications to consider?” Why indeed.

My perspective surrounding addiction has been heavily influenced by the parents and families I’ve met along the course of my 30 years with the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. These parents have humbled me, educated me and inspired me and the organization to do more for the children and families in the crosshairs of the most under-recognized public health crisis of our time. The most prevalent drugs causing death and suffering may have changed since the Partnership was founded – from crack cocaine in the 1980’s to abuse of pain medication and other opiates like heroin today – but greater access to evidenced-based treatment, along with support and education for families is needed just as urgently now.

We believe that there is a path to recovery for everyone, but no single path for everybody. We believe that addiction is a health issue. Like other adolescent and young adult health issues, there is increasing evidence that parents with kids who are struggling with drugs or alcohol who are given guidance, support and training have better outcomes with their kids than parents who don’t. Scientific and medical research is showing that some approaches work better than others. But parents must know that there are options, and that conventional wisdom about people needing to “hit rock bottom” often ends up not helping, or making things worse. The recently passed Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act is the most important piece of legislation for families in recent memory. The state-based Good Samaritan laws and wider availability of Naloxone, a rescue medication that helps reverse the effects of opioid overdose, are helping to reduce overdose deaths. Millions of people who are in recovery and millions of families who are healing are beginning to speak out for change, fighting the stigma of addiction and demanding better care for their children.

These are real and encouraging steps in reducing addiction. But the millions of families facing these frightening challenges deserve more. So much of the suffering is preventable, so many lives could be saved and so many parents should have better information and support to help their children thrive. We must do a better job leveraging the most powerful force in healing – a parent’s love and drive to help and protect their children.

tom_hedrick_partnership-for-drug-free-kidsTom Hedrick is one of the founding members of the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, a national nonprofit committed to helping families struggling with their son or daughter’s substance use. He helped lead the development of a national Parent Support Network, including online resources at drugfree.org, a Toll-Free Helpline and peer-to-peer coaching.
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    Holly Lambert, CPRP

    November 2, 2016 at 1:18 AM

    A close friend of ours just lost her 25 year old son to an opiate addiction and before I could attend the funeral I heard of 3 other close calls. The opiate addition in America is becoming an epidemic and it needs to be talked about at every dinner table. Thank you for sharing this article. It really puts it in perspective.

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    Dave Finch

    November 1, 2016 at 6:46 PM

    The act has some good features, but I do not see in it any recognition that our rehab industry needs a radical overhaul. Federal dollars helping rehab providers continue to promote their programs as solutions rather than as methods to assist clients committed to recovery through their own self-development will be largely wasted. If the Act supports earnest studies to learn what really works in rehab, I’m for it. But, the President was wrong when he said we can reduce demand for drugs by increasing treatment. As Hart reminds us, the vast majority of addicted persons recover without treatment and honest treatment specialists are united in saying the client not committed to recovery will not progress in treatment. The disease model and 12-Step are teaching addiction sufferers the opposite of what they need to know. Our dollars are well spent on harm reduction measures and MAT, and I hope the Act fosters those. Our greatest need is to get off the abstinence hook and devise responsible use education as a first step toward recovery. The system I propose in my writing would do that, through toleration of adult use of legal drugs, along with a robust counseling component and controls to prevent leakage of drugs into the hands of minors. We will live with abuse, addiction and drug related deaths and all the violence that accompanies illegal dealing for as long as we persist in our misguided legal system and rehab approaches.

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    Barbara Nicholson Brown

    October 25, 2016 at 7:51 PM

    Fantastic article Tom. Thank you! Barbara Nicholson-Brown, Scottsdale, AZ

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