Addressing the Stigma that Surrounds Addiction

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From the Monthly Blog of Dr. Nora Volkow, Exec. Dir.
NATIONAL INSTITUTE ON DRUG ABUSE

Original Date April 22, 2020

Untreated drug and alcohol use contribute to tens of thousands of deaths every year and impact the lives of many more. Healthcare already has effective tools including medications for opioid and alcohol use disorder that could prevent many of these deaths, but they are not being utilized widely enough, and many people who could benefit do not even seek them out. One important reason is the stigma that surrounds people with addiction.

Man sitting alone in streetlight at night

Stigma is a problem with health conditions ranging from cancer and HIV to many mental illnesses. Some gains have been made in reducing stigma around certain conditions; public education and widespread use of effective medications has demystified depression, for instance, making it somewhat less taboo now than it was in past generations. But little progress has been made in removing the stigma around substance use disorders. People with addiction continue to be blamed for their disease. Even though medicine long ago reached a consensus that addiction is a complex brain disorder with behavioral components, the public and even many in healthcare and the justice system continue to view it as a result of moral weakness and flawed character.

Stigma on the part of healthcare providers who tacitly see a patient’s drug or alcohol problem as their own fault leads to substandard care or even to rejecting individuals seeking treatment. People showing signs of acute intoxication or withdrawal symptoms are sometimes expelled from emergency rooms by staff fearful of their behavior or assuming they are only seeking drugs. People with addiction internalize this stigma, feeling shame and refusing to seek treatment as a result.

In a Perspective published recently in The New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Volkow tells the story about a man she met who was injecting heroin in his leg at a “shooting gallery”—a makeshift injection site—in San Juan, Puerto Rico, during a visit to that country several years ago. His leg was severely infected, and Dr. Volkow urged him to visit an emergency room—but he refused. He had been treated horribly on previous occasions, so preferred risking his life, or probable amputation, to the prospect of repeating his humiliation. This highlights a dimension of stigma that has been less remarked on in the literature and that is uniquely important for people with substance use disorders: Beyond just impeding the provision or seeking of care, stigma may actually enhance or reinstate drug use, playing a key part in the vicious cycle that drives addicted people to continue using drugs.

Previously on her montly blog Dr. Volkow highlighted research by Marco Venniro at NIDA’s Intramural Research Program, showing that rodents dependent on heroin or methamphetamine still choose social interaction over drug self-administration, given a choice; but when the social choice is punished, the animals revert to the drug. It is a profound finding, very likely applicable to humans, since we are highly social beings. Some of us respond to social as well as physical punishments by turning to substances to alleviate our pain. The humiliating rejection experienced by people who are stigmatized for their drug use acts as a powerful social punishment, driving them to continue and perhaps intensify their drug-taking.

The stigmatization of people with substance use disorders may be even more problematic in the current COVID-19 crisis. In addition to their greater risk through homelessness and drug use itself, the legitimate fear around contagion may mean that bystanders or even first responders will be reluctant to administer naloxone to people who have overdosed. And there is a danger that overtaxed hospitals will preferentially pass over those with obvious drug problems when making difficult decisions about where to direct lifesaving personnel and resources.

Alleviating stigma is not easy, in part because the rejection of people with addiction or mental illness arises from violations of social norms. Even people in healthcare, if they do not have training in caring for people with substance use disorders, may be at a loss as to how to interact with someone acting threateningly because of withdrawal or some drugs’ effects (e.g., PCP). It is crucial that people across healthcare, from staff in emergency departments to physicians, nurses, and physician assistants, be trained in caring compassionately and competently for people with substance use disorders. Treating patients with dignity and compassion is the first step.

There must be wider recognition that susceptibility to the brain changes in addiction are substantially influenced by factors outside an individual’s control, such as genetics or the environment in which one is born and raised, and that medical care is often necessary to facilitate recovery as well as avert the worst outcomes like overdose. When people with addiction are stigmatized and rejected, especially by those within healthcare, it only contributes to the vicious cycle that entrenches their disease.

Find Help Near You

The following website can help you find substance abuse or other mental health services in your area: www.samhsa.gov/find-treatment. If you are in an emergency situation, people at this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: 1(800) 273-TALK. Or click on: www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

You can also find help through Narcotics Anonymous at 844-335-2408.

Fentanyl Becomes Deadly Force

Some Excerpts taken from an article By Eric Scicchitano
The Daily Item
July 10, 2017

Fentanyl

The deadly heroin and opioid epidemic is expected to become even deadlier with the increasing presence of Fentanyl in America. According to the DEA, Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine, and substantially more potent than heroin. As little as 2 grams of Fentanyl can be deadly. Alarmingly, it is fast becoming the most prevalent active ingredient in counterfeit drugs like Adderall, Xanax, and OxyContin being sold on the streets. During the first quarter of 2017, heroin combined with Fentanyl was detected in 61% of opioids seized for evidence and inspected in DEA labs. It is also frequently laced into marijuana and smoked.

The DEA’s Philadelphia Division warns that Fentanyl is on the rise, with seizures of shipments more than doubling from 167 kilos in 2015 to 365 kilos in 2016. Investigators are trying to determine if an outbreak of Fentanyl is responsible for 51 overdoses which occurred in Williamsport (Pennsylvania) in forty-eight hours. [See my post 51 overdoses in 48 hours] Three of those cases ended in death. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), heroin and opioids killed an estimated 280,000 people nationwide between 2002 and 2015. Based upon preliminary figures put together through state coroners, more than 4,800 people died of an overdose in Pennsylvania last year. Experts are concerned that the next chapter in the opioid crisis could dwarf what we’ve seen so far. Their concern is based on the proliferation of Fentanyl.

Fentanyl Deaths Map

Let’s take a few moments to discuss Fentanyl. It is a man-made (synthetic) opioid, meaning it is manufactured in a laboratory, but it acts on the mu-opioid receptors in our brain and spinal column in the same manner as the morphine molecule found naturally in opium. Typically, these receptor sites are meant for naturally-occurring endorphins, our “feel good” chemical released by the pituitary gland. Fentanyl is usually prescribed to patients suffering from intractable cancer-related pain and, in some cases, debilitating back pain. My father was given Fentanyl patches for compression fractures near the end of this life. Initially, it was believed Fentanyl would not be abused. Unfortunately, addicts decided to start opening the patch in order to scrape out the medicine and abuse it.

Fentanyl Mapping.gif

As if that were not enough, Fentanyl is being illegally manufactured in labs (primarily in China). It is produced in powder form, and is also pressed into pills, and smuggled into the United States. These knock-off pills are catching users off guard. Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine. DEA and border patrol seized more than 10,000 counterfeit pills containing Fentanyl in 2015. An amount as small as 2 milligrams can be deadly. First responders and ER physicians have to use extreme caution in order to avoid accidental exposure. According to the article in The Daily Item, an Ohio police officer accidentally overdosed in May of this year after brushing Fentanyl powder from his uniform during an arrest.

After the recent overdose surge in Lycoming County (Pennsylvania), Todd Owens, Mount Carmel police chief and head of the Northumberland County Drug Task Force, advised first responders to take measures to protect themselves. Chief Owens said his own department stocks medical masks, coveralls and heavy-grade gloves in their cruisers to be worn in the event they encounter heroin.

Heroin Fentanyl and Carfentanil Pics

The above is an illustration of potency betwen heroin, Fentanyl, and Carfentanil.

Carfentanil

Carfentanil is an extremely powerful derivative of Fentanyl. While Fentanyl is up to 100 times more potent than morphine, Carfentanil is 100 times more powerul than Fentanyl. In other words, it is 10,000 times more powerful than morphine. It is not approved for use in humans; rather, it is used in veterinary medicine to sedate large animals, primarily elephants. Yes, elephants! Carfentanil is so powerful that when veterinarians handle it, they use protective gear to avoid breathing it in or absorbing it through their skin. The amount of Carfentanil that can be safely administered to a human is 0.1 mg., compared to 13 mg. needed to sedate an elephant. It is obviously rather easy for an addict to accidentally take too much Carfentanil.

Interestinly, there are no statistics showing Carfentanil leading to addiction. That’s because even in the case of a seasoned addict a dose the size of a grain of salt can rapidly lead to an overdose and death. Frighteningly, drug dealers have begun cutting heroin with Carfentanil because it is extremely cheap to acquire. Even more disturbing is the fact that addicts in search of the ultimate high are deliberately trying this deadly drug. Rangers at Yellowstone National Park have recently begun issuing warnings to avoid eating the meat of bison killed in the park because the bison might have been sedated with Carfentanil for tagging or medical treatment. The drug can easily enter the bloodstream of those who eat the bison meat. It is most chilling to note that Carfentanil rapidly latches on to the mu-opioid receptors in humans, causing overdose almost immediately.

Moving Forward

Fentanyl moved up the rankings, from the 9th most common drug involved in overdose deaths in 2013, to the 5th most common drug involved in overdose deaths in 2014. The singer-songwriter Prince died of an overdose of Fentanyl in April 2016, according to officials in Minnesota. Philip Seymour Hoffman, a very successful indie film star (and one of my favorites), died of a heroin overdose on February 2, 2014. Although he had a drug problem while in college, he was clean for twenty years. No doubt his system was not able to handle the strength of today’s heroin.

Reports from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) showed that deaths from heroin more than tripled during a five-year period, from 3,020 deaths in 2010, to 10,863 deaths in 2014. These deaths are yet another symptom of the broader epidemic of opioid addiction. Just as deaths from AIDS are due to untreated HIV, deaths from overdose are frequently due to untreated addiction. I know of many addicts attending 12-step meetings who are positive for hepatitis-C secondary to sharing needles while injecting heroin. Prince’s death is a reminder that opioid addiction is a disease that can and does affect people from all economic classes and all walks of life.

References

Scicchitano, E. (July 10, 2017). Fentanyl Becomes Deadly Force. Daily Item. Sunbury, PA.

Wakeman, S. (Aug. 5, 2016). Fentanyl: The Dangers of this Potent “Man-Made” Opioid. [Web Blog Comment.] Retrieved from: http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/fentanyl-dangers-potent-man-made-opioid-2016080510141

Rettner, R. (Dec. 20, 2016). Deaths From Fentanyl Overdoses Double in a Single Year. LiveScience.com. Retrieved from: https://www.livescience.com/57268-fentanyl-overdose-deaths-double.html