Heroin Addiction Is Destroying the Lives of Young Americans

New programs will save high school students from dying of an opioid overdose.

Posted Jan 27, 2016

Every day, approximately 125 Americans die from a heroin or opioid related drug overdose. 
Source: chairoij/Shutterstock

In recent weeks, the headlines have been filled with alarming news about the rapid spread of heroin addiction and the skyrocketing number of heroin overdose deaths.

Last Sunday, 60 Minutes premiered a gut-wrenching episode, “Heroin in the Heartland," which addressed the evolution of heroin addiction from an inner-city problem to one that is decimating the lives of young, middle-to-upper class children and families in suburbia.

In most cases, the use of opioid-based pain medications, such as Oxycontin, is the gateway to heroin addiction. When someone's prescription for an opioid painkiller runs out, many users turn to heroin. The Mexican drug cartels are making billions of dollars by piggybacking on the pharmaceutical companies and doctors who have inadvertently created millions of opioid-addicted American consumers.

On Jan. 25, 2016, The New York Times editorial board printed an opinion piece, “Drug Deaths Reach White Americans,” which focuses on the pending Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2015. This Act “Directs the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to convene a Pain Management Best Practices Inter-Agency Task Force to develop: best practices for pain management and prescribing pain medication, and a strategy for disseminating such best practices.”  The NYT editors write,

"Congress has historically treated drug abuse as a malady afflicting mostly poor, minority communities, best dealt with by locking people up for long periods of time. The epidemic of drug overdose deaths currently ravaging white populations in cities and towns across the country has altered this line of thinking, and forced lawmakers to acknowledge that addiction is a problem that knows no racial barriers and can be best addressed with treatment . . . In addition to driving up mortality rates, excessive use of painkillers costs the country tens of billions of dollars in lost productivity, medical complications and higher insurance costs."

Deaths caused by drug overdoses have jumped in almost every county in the United States. In 2014, the number of deaths in the United States from opioid drugs or heroin overdoses totaled 47,055 people, which is the equivalent of about 125 Americans every day. The death rate from drug overdoses is climbing much faster than other causes of death. It jumped to 15 per 100,000 in 2014 from nine per 100,000 in 2003.

 Petar Paunchev/Shutterstock
Source: Petar Paunchev/Shutterstock

In January 2016, the Clinton Health Matters Initiative launched two new programs to address the growing risk of opioid overdose among American high-school students.

Firstly, the Clinton Foundation has partnered with Adapt Pharma to provide a free carton of NARCAN (naloxone hydrochloride) to every high school in the United States through the state departments of education. Narcan is an opioid-antagonist nasal spray that brings people back-to-life after a heroin or opioid overdose. Secondly, in addition to providing Narcan to high schools, Adapt Pharma is funding a grant to the National Association of School Nurses (NASN) to support their educational efforts to reduce opiate addiction and prevent fatal overdoses.

The new Narcan high school program is part of a larger scale effort to increase the availability of Naloxone across the country. In a press release, Rain Henderson, CEO of the Clinton Health Matters Initiative, said,  

"We are pleased to encourage public-private collaborations expanding access to naloxone. We are hopeful this effort will facilitate a dialogue amongst students, educators, health professionals, and families about the risks of opioid overdose and ensure naloxone is available in schools that decide to take steps to address opioid overdose emergencies."

Why Are So Many Americans Driven to Use and Abuse Drugs?

Obviously, every effort to save the lives of people who overdose from heroin or opioid prescription pills is of paramount importance. That said, hopefully, the Narcan and Naloxone initiatives will be viewed historically as a band-aid that served to get our society through this epidemic in one piece. Ultimately, we need to solve the real problem which is to identify and neutralize the powerful forces that are fueling America's insatiable appetite to consume copious amounts of drugs and alcohol.

Recently, Sean Penn spoke to Charlie Rose about his controversial clandestine meeting with Mexican drug cartel kingpin, Joaquín Guzmán, also known as “El Chapo.” During the interview, Penn raised many important concerns about drug abuse, including the fact that, in many ways, Americans are complicit to the crimes associated with the buying and selling of drugs by consuming these products. It seems to me that Sean Penn is on a crusade to raise awareness about the underlying psychology that pushes Americans to crave getting high on marijuana, heroin, and cocaine . . . or to drink themselves into oblivion.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention
Source: Center for Disease Control and Prevention

In November 2015,  I wrote a Psychology Today blog post, “Why Are So Many Middle-Aged White Americans Dying Young?” based on a report from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the U.S. Census Bureau which found that in the past decade, mortality rates for middle-aged white Americans jumped dramatically, compared to other demographic groups.

According to their analysis, the three causes of death that accounted for the change in mortality among non-Hispanic whites were: suicide, drug and alcohol poisoning, chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis.

The million-dollar question remains, “What drives Americans to crave drugs to the point of self-annihilation?” Clearly, it would seem that as a society there must be a growing sense of unhappiness, malcontent, and dissatisfaction that drives millions of us to be uninterested in experiencing the reality of our daily lives stone-cold sober.

In the recent 60 Minutes program, Bill Whitaker asked a teenager, "Why were you using all these drugs? Jenna Morrison responded, “I'm in a small town. There was nothing to do. And I was hanging out with older people. So, that was our way of having fun, partying.” Obviously, boredom is a part of drug abuse, but hopelessness about the future and being unable to actually achieve the “American Dream” may also be playing a role.

In November 2015, my Psychology Today colleague, Jean M. Twenge published a study reporting that adults over age 30 are less happy than they’ve been in decades. The study, "More Happiness for Young People and Less for Mature Adults: Time Period Differences in Subjective Well-Being in the United States, 1972–2014,'' was published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. In a press release, Twenge said,

"American culture has increasingly emphasized high expectations and following your dreams—things that feel good when you're young. However, the average mature adult has realized that their dreams might not be fulfilled, and less happiness is the inevitable result. Mature adults in previous eras might not have expected so much, but expectations are now so high they can't be met."

After reading about this study, I emailed Twenge to ask her, "How do you think someone who is over 30 and unhappy, as reflected by low subjective well-being, can turn his or her life around and create an upward spiral of positive emotions and well-being?" In response, Jean Twenge said,

"Of course, I can't claim to have any easy solutions to the problem. I think the research on gratitude is informative, though -- it suggests focusing on what you have instead of what you don't have, and writing a "gratitude letter" to someone who helped you. Making commitments to relationships is also good advice -- we need other people to be happy, contrary to the modern mantra of "you don't need anyone else to make you happy." And my friend Sonja Lyubomirsky, who co-authored the paper, has lots of solutions in her book The How of Happiness."

Conclusion: Loving-Kindness and Strong Social Bonds As an Antidote for Drugs

My mom keeps her car key on a plastic keychain that says, “Hugs not Drugs.” As simple as it sounds, I think our next “War on Drugs” needs to focus on loving-kindness and nurturing strong social bonds from a young age, as opposed to relying on criminal penalization and incarceration as a way to force Americans to "just say no."

I’m optimistic that collectively thought leaders and public health advocates from all walks of life can come together to find ways to make Americans en masse less interested in getting high. Obviously, alcohol and drug abuse is such a complex issue. Hopefully, in the months and years ahead, policymakers and experts in this field will fine tune more effective treatments and interventions for anyone suffering from addiction.

It may seem cheesy, but I have a hypothesis that alcohol and drug abuse is often a substitute for love. As Brené Brown reminds us, everybody needs to feel worthy of love and belonging. I know from personal experience that a lack of social connectivity or self-love can drive a teenager to be self-destructive and abuse drugs. 

Along these lines, I believe that creating public policies that level the playing field so that every American has a fair chance to optimize his or her full potential can create an upward spiral by improving young American's feelings of self-worth, sense of purpose, and a belief that their lives matter. 

Another way we can start building stronger social bonds is to offer paid maternity and paternity leave to new parents so they can form close and intimate physical bonds with newborns from day one. The physical and emotional bonds that are formed in the first 28 days of life lay down the neural scaffolding and networks that can provide a lifetime of psychological and physical well-being and resilience.

Also, in a Facebook era, each of us (myself included) must constantly strive to maintain stronger social bonds and nurture face-to-face friendships that don’t revolve around substance abuse or hanging out at a local bar. I know these solutions might sound simplistic. Clearly, we need to have all hands on deck when creating multi-pronged and fresh approaches to stop the juggernaut of opioid and substance abuse before these addictions destroy more lives.

In closing, below is a link to the Lise Balk King HBO Documentary, Heroin: Cape Cod, which gives an intimate portrait of the opioid epidemic in Massachusetts. Please take some time to watch this film on YouTube:

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