According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), on average 100 people die every day in the United States from drug overdoses. Most involve prescription drugs. This is a huge number of preventable deaths that unfortunately affects close friends and family members, including many children. Prescription drug abuse is a major growing public health concern.
When a family unit has a member who is abusing or addicted to prescription drugs, everyone in the family experiences the negative consequences of addiction. Prescription pain medications are very addictive, over prescribed, and long term use can lead to heroin abuse when the addict can no longer obtain prescription pills. This is happening in “normal” families to good parents with good kids in cities, suburbs, small towns, and rural areas. Yet people continue to be ashamed of their addicted family members, even though the problem affects so many.
The shame surrounding addiction to prescription drugs – not to mention the lingering stigma of heroin – has been a major factor in stymieing efforts to educate the public about the problem.
Addiction treatment should begin with the addict and also needs to include all family members. A parent in denial can translate their stress to others around them unintentionally and be a poor role model. Children can be harmed by the neglect of a caregiver who through forgetfulness leaves their drugs out in the open or by lack of general care and supervision. Addicts increasingly become less responsible and can become irrational or violent, putting all family members at risk.
Parents need to stop trying to protect their image and help fight this battle. They need to start trying to save another family from going through the devastation that so many are experiencing.
Children and teenagers exposed to an environment with chronic substance abuse tend to have emotional, behavioral and social problems along with a greater risk of developing their own addictions. Teens have been known to sneak their parent’s medications with tragic consequences, including overdoses and accidents, many resulting in death. Intervention to help families cope may help prevent or decrease the number of occurrences.
States should ensure that providers follow evidence-based guidelines for the safe and effective use of prescription painkillers. Swift regulatory action taken against health care providers acting outside the limits of accepted medical practice could decrease provider behaviors that contribute to prescription painkiller abuse, diversion, and overdose.
Addiction problems are increasingly a family disorder. The stigma of addiction and the fear of seeking help need to be addressed. Every day, I work with families in need of help, but who are terrified to reach out to others because of the shame and stigma they believe will be attached to them. This stigmatization of addiction must end. If it does not, we will continue to unnecessarily bury too many of those we love.