Addiction affects Americans of every age, ethnicity and economic background. It’s important that we recognize this for treatment and prevention purposes. One of the most common questions regarding drug and alcohol addiction, both in expert analysis and casual conversation, is: “Who does it affect most?” This is a perfectly natural curiosity as it helps people better understand the nature of the problem while allowing stakeholders to focus treatment and prevention resources where they are needed most. The trouble with this question, however, is that drug and alcohol addiction in America has gotten so pervasive, so ubiquitous, and so out of control, that it defies any one identity or group of identities. The sooner we realize the extensive nature of the problem, the sooner we will be able develop the sweeping and comprehensive solutions necessary to face it head on and help those in need.
American Addiction Defies Cultural Perception
Many have pre-conceived notions about the average addict and labor under the misapprehension that there actually is an archetype. They picture an inner-city young adult who is unkempt, addled and evidently volatile. What’s more dangerous about this perception is that it paints addiction as a choice rather than a medical disease, ignoring the complex and devastating neurobiological elements at play. If, after decades of evidence, there was any lingering doubt that addiction affects every portion of the American population, the explosion of prescription opioid fatalities has obliterated it. In 2014, there were over 47,000 overdose fatalities from these drugs, and many of these victims don’t look like what many expect.
Seniors Are More Vulnerable Than Ever
In 2013, generic hydrocodone was the most commonly prescribed drug under Medicare. In that single year, seniors became more vulnerable than ever to prescription opioid abuse. As our bodies age, it becomes more difficult to metabolize these drugs and break them down properly. This means they stay in the system longer, prolonging and magnifying their effects. Compound this with the stresses (retirement, financial fears, family estrangement, mental illness, etc.) and physical rigor of the aging process, and we have an entirely new group of at-risk addicts. In addition to prescription opioids, benzodiazepines like Xanax and Valium pose a significant threat to seniors. The rate of benzo addiction among seniors continues to increase each year.
A Universal Problem with Devastating Fallout
Seniors are not the only vulnerable population. More than 50 million Americans have used prescription drugs for non-medical purposes in their lifetime.Additionally, there are the established threats of cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana, alcohol abuse and others. We have also seen the resurgence of heroin, which has been magnified due to the increased regulation of prescription opioid diversion. Many users are finding it difficult and more costly to obtain drugs like oxycodone and hydrocodone for recreational use, and are graduating to heroin because of its nearly identical effects. More than 30 percent of all heroin users start off using prescription painkillers. The cost difference between prescription painkillers and heroin is often as wide as $30 per pill versus $5 per baggie.
While prescription has undoubtedly changed the face and perception of chemical dependency in the United States, there is still a language and stigma barrier that blocks many from getting the treatment they need. This past week, the Senate approved measures that incrementally break down these obstacles in the form of the 2016 Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, however lack of funding has many questioning whether or not it will be effective. However we choose to combat drug addiction in America going forward, we need to start with the idea that everyone needs help, regardless of their race, age or education or bank account. Once we recognize the universal nature or modern addiction, we can get serious about treatment and prevention.