The opioid epidemic continues to be a daily national story with allegations and new lawsuits piling up against Big Pharma companies in states like Ohio, New York, Mississippi, California and West Virginia among others. Some of these companies have gone as far as to run marketing campaigns that give false information - trivializing risks and overstating benefits of extended use - to practitioners and patients regarding best practices for opioid usage.
As States’ fight back through the court system, the approach is reminiscent of their legal battles with Big Tobacco in the 1990s. However, unlike tobacco which offers no health benefits, this issue isn’t as clear cut. In the past, opioids were primarily used to address acute, or short-term pain. But over the last two decades, doctors have increasingly prescribed them to treat chronic pain, giving them to patients for months or years at a stretch.
Still, there are growing concerns even within the medical community over possible restrictions to access for treating of those in real need, as the severity of an individuals’ chronic pain is difficult to measure in comparison to another’s.
The country has been caught in a vicious cycle of pharmaceutical over-production, drug wholesaler over-distribution, doctor over-prescription based on misinformation, and finally to “pill mill” over-dispensing. The most vulnerable population is our adolescents, who become addicted as a result of injury, experimenting with their parents’ medicine cabinet contents, peer pressure, or self-medicating a mental health issue.
As of 2015, 276,000 adolescents were current nonmedical users of pain reliever, with 122,000 having an addiction to prescription pain relievers.
Just a few weeks ago on May 31st, the Heroin and Opioid Prevention Effort and Treatment Act was signed into law in Maryland effectively making naloxone, a medication that can reverse opioid overdose, available over the counter. Similar legislation allowing broad access to naloxone has been enacted in several more states, often with support from opioid makers. The same industry that over-produced opioids is now lobbying to make naloxone available nationwide, almost as if it is betting opioid usage will continue to increase if people know a safety net is readily available.
So now that the same industry is creating the cause and lifeline for this epidemic, what can behavioral health organizations do to make a difference?
With so much chatter, medical misinformation, and stigma still surrounding prescription pain management, treatment facilities have an opportunity to position themselves experts in the field and be sought after as impartial sources of facts and information. Local engagement and educating the public are more important than ever. Addiction treatment experts should be actively sharing knowledge and providing lifesaving resources to their communities.
Here are some actionable ways your organization can get involved within 30 days:
- Leverage senior leadership and medical/counseling staff to create newsletters, blog posts, webinars around raising awareness and discussing treatment options.
2. In Person:
- Host informational sessions at your facility/facilities about warning signs and early prevention for specific populations such as adolescents, women, and the chronically ill.
- Create meet and greet events in community centers or local high schools with government officials, local leaders, and counseling staff to dispel myths and discuss treatment options without stigma.
- Offer rehabilitation scholarships to qualifying candidates in your local markets and document their journey to recovery to inform others in the community and humanize the experience.
3. Through Media:
- Provide local experts to TV, radio, and print to drive issue awareness and share knowledge with the public.
Getting involved is not a question of yes or no at this point - it’s a question of when. Having a detailed and actionable communications and community liaison plan is key. How will your organization be a leader in your community?