When it comes to drug overdose, we may be winning one battle, but losing the war. As deaths involving prescription painkillers are leveling off, the latest stats on heroin fatalities could not be more dire. What's often lost behind the headlines is that the trends in prescription painkiller and heroin abuse are linked.
Risk of death from overdosing on heroin or other opioids such as Vicodin or OxyContin goes up substantially after periods of refraining from drug use. Quantities that once brought pleasure can be fatal after a period of abstinence. The research shows that individuals leaving jail or prison are particularly vulnerable.
Because most people who are prescribed opioids do not see themselves as being at risk for overdose, they may decline naloxone even if it is offered by a medical provider. Talking about not breathing as a possible side effect usually grabs patients' attention and will make them more open to information on naloxone.
Substance abuse and eating disorders are both mental illnesses. We are prone to blame the sufferer, to dwell in ignorance and shame those who suffer. We forget that lives are lost, we forget that families mourn each day. The nation mourns when we lose great talent, but we do not mourn when we lose the unknown.
This week Gov. Cuomo announced a package of legislation that seeks to address the drug-overdose crisis in New York, including reforming health insurance to make sure that people are not denied coverage for drug treatment. Not mentioned is a major bill that will immediately save lives by preventing overdose deaths from heroin and prescription opioids.