The current epidemic is not slowing down and it’s heartbreaking for me to think that there are more sons, daughters and other family members who will lose their lives so tragically and needlessly. I’ve heard countless parents say “There is nothing I can do.” But even small steps can help turn the tide and save precious lives.
Here are six things I learned from attending the Summit and suggested actions families can take:
1. Get Overdose Prevention Training
Many of the 33,000 deaths from opioids could have been prevented if naloxone, also known as Narcan, had been deployed. Naloxone is an overdose reversal medication.
I was excited by some of the new innovations on the horizon. For example, last year the FDA sponsored a Naloxone App Competition – and chose a winner PwrdBy who created a mobile app OD Help that leverages existing social networks among opioid users to quickly match overdosing patients with people nearby that carry naloxone. The app is still in development and more widespread availability of Narcan will be needed to make it successful and a helpful tool for families.
2. Encourage Loved Ones Struggling with Heroin and Rx Painkillers to Consider Anti-Craving Medications
The effectiveness of using anti-craving medications – also known as Medication-Assisted Treatment — was universally touted by speakers at the conference. Medications like Suboxone, Methadone and Vivitrol were cited as reducing cravings, the risk of relapse and overdose as well as decreasing other health-related risks like Hepatitis C and HIV.
Some families are worried that use of the medications that have a small amount of opiates in them to reduce cravings and stabilize the brain are like trading one addiction for another. The science says otherwise. Just like someone who needs insulin to address diabetes or lithium to address bipolar disorder. Some people will benefit from being on these medications for a year while others may need to stay on longer.
3. Ask your House and Senate Representatives to fund the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the National Institute of Health (NIH)
Drs. Nora Volkow and Francis Collins shared a number of initiatives in the works that can help loved ones, but as Congressman Hal Rogers said, “A vision without funding is a hallucination.” They are working on a heroin vaccine, a fentanyl vaccine, longer-acting and more powerful naloxone to reverse overdoses, a device that would recognize that a person is overdosing and send out an alert, a device that would prevent respiratory failure, and many alternatives to opioids for pain management. So while there is no quick fix available, important efforts are underway to help and they need funding to make it happen. Reach out to your representatives and your senators to ask for more funding for NIDA and NIH.
4. Register Insurance Complaints
Former Senator Patrick Kennedy spoke of getting insurance coverage for mental health and substance use on par with medical coverage as the “Medical Civil Rights Movement” of our times. He encouraged anyone who thinks that they have been unfairly denied benefits for mental health and substance use to register a complaint at the Parity Registry website. He hopes to aggregate the complaints and then present them to the Attorney Generals of each state to address.
5. Lock Up Your Medications
Several speakers noted that a majority of people who get pills that are misused get them from family and friends, not a drug dealer. It’s really important to secure your medications so that if, for instance, you or a family member have a party at home or an open house to sell your home, someone doesn’t raid your medicine cabinet and take whatever they want. Many of us are already doing this but it’s an important reminder to keep at it.
In the conference’s exhibit hall, vendors featured new products to help safeguard your pills such as medicine bottles with lids that had timers so you would know the last time they were opened or a lock with a four-digit code that could be purchased in local pharmacies, in the event that you don’t have a lock for your medicine cabinet.
6. Use Proper Disposal Methods for Unused Medications
Often people will flush unused medications down the toilet (which is contaminating our water system) or throw them in the trash (where they can be retrieved). It’s better to dispose of your unused medications properly. Many pharmacies offer medication take-back services, while in some communities there are drop-off centers for medication take-back days.
One thing is beyond clear from the National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit. There’s no single answer. Prevention, treatment, supports, recovery, harm reduction, advocacy and families are all essential.