Taming the Opiate Monster
“Monster movies” have been a common film genre throughout cinema history. Having seen more of these movies than I care to admit, I find that an effective “monster” typically is understood very little by the audience and yet seems to strike near to the places where they live, work, and play. Though tame by modern standards, examples of these monsters include Frankenstein, Dracula, the Mummy, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
In many ways, the opioid epidemic has become our culture’s new “monster.” It too is difficult to understand and has struck in every corner of our nation. Additionally, it appears to be invisible, which amplifies the fear factor associated with it. This monstrosity has become such a problem that overdose has become a leading cause of preventable death in the United States.
Though addiction treatment professionals have clear guidelines by which to diagnose substance use disorders, the reality is that this “opiate monster” is impossible to understand fully given that it “attacks” each person for a different reason. Common contributors toward developing an opiate addiction include, but aren’t limited to: social isolation, stressful life circumstances, lack of belonging in the world, history of trauma, depression, anxiety, and chronic pain. Therefore, each person’s “monster” is as individualized as one’s life experience.
However, these factors are also true for those with other types of addiction like marijuana and alcohol. What makes the “opiate monster” unique is its lethality. Heroin, the most common opiate responsible for overdose, is often laced with fentanyl. This substance is a highly concentrated opiate that was originally developed for pain management purposes for cancer patients. However, it has become a favorite for heroin producers because it is easier to smuggle, makes heroin production cheaper, and amplifies the heroin “high.” This leads to users unknowingly injecting fentanyl into their blood system when they use heroin, thus sometimes leading to overdose. 
To fully understand the opioid epidemic, consider how, in 2017, 49,000 of the 72,287 overdose deaths in the United States were the result of opioids. It should be noted that overdose by cocaine and other stimulants are on the rise as well (19.8% in 2017), but not for an increase of popularity. Rather, these substances are also being laced with fentanyl. 
This problem has become so big that no amount of treatment professionals, law enforcement, and government agencies can adequately deal with the problem by themselves. Rather, it will take active participation by community members to help reduce the overdose deaths that are taking place. Considering the following suggestions for how you can help combat this “opiate monster” we are all facing:
De-stigmatize addiction. Rather than assuming why addiction happens, choose to listen to those struggling with addiction and those who are recovering from it. Ask open questions and listen before speaking. Allow the stories you hear to form your understanding of how addiction occurs.
Encourage those struggling with addiction to seek treatment from certified alcohol and drug counselors.
Engage politically. Ask your national, state, and local representatives what they are doing to help eliminate overdose. Encourage them to support pro-treatment law enforcement approaches such as drug court.
Consider donating to or fundraising for non-profits and other organizations that are helping fight the opioid epidemic.
Keep an open mind. Many tools we have to prevent overdose death are harm-reduction based, meaning that they reduce the possibility that those using heroin will die from overdose. Such options include fentanyl testing strips and overdose-reversing medications like Narcan. These tools are not meant to enable addiction, but rather prolong life so that recovery can occur. Consider purchasing such tools for anyone in your life struggling with addiction. They are often available at your local pharmacy.
Prevent future addiction by educating children, adolescents, and young adults on the dangers of drug use. Suggest healthy alternatives to cope with life stressors.
As in with past public health crises like the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, public participation is the key to reducing overdose and helping those struggling with addiction. You too can help with this effort.
Brian Harrison, LSW, CADC
Counselor at Breaking Free