Why Has America Become the Addicted Nation?

Every single day I receive phone calls from families who are desperate.  Loved ones are caught in the snare of addiction while mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, sisters and brothers feel hopeless and helpless trying to find answers in an epidemic that has become known as America’s opioid crisis. Common opioids include heroin and prescription drugs such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, and fentanyl.

This is more than a drug problem—it is a national epidemic that has tremendous long term consequences.  It is destroying the very fabric of our nation.  Families are being destroyed at an alarming rate through the abuse of prescription pain killers, heroin and a host of other illicit drugs.

We can no longer turn our backs on people we view as “deadbeats” or “pot heads.”  We must aggressively address this problem or lose thousands of potentially productive citizens that range from mechanics and carpenters to doctors and engineers. This is an epidemic that impacts everyone.

Yes, America is an addicted nation.

Concern has grown to the point to where the President of the United States addressed the nation on Thursday, October 26, 2017 where he stated,

“Last year, we lost at least 64,000 Americans to overdoses.  That’s 175 lost American lives per day.  That’s seven lost lives per hour in our country.  Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of unintentional death in the United States by far.  More people are dying from drug overdoses today than from gun homicides and motor vehicles combined.  Think of it -- motor vehicle crashes, gun homicides, more people by far from drug overdoses.

These overdoses are driven by a massive increase in addiction to prescription painkillers, heroin, and other opioids. Last year, almost 1 million Americans used heroin, and more than 11 million abused prescription opioids. The United States is by far the largest consumer of these drugs, using more opioid pills per person than any other country by far in the world. Opioid overdose deaths have quadrupled since 1999 and now account for the majority of fatal drug overdoses. Who would have thought??

Not only is the President addressing the issue on the national stage, but in political campaigns across the nation candidates are promising to throw money and resources at the opioid epidemic at state and local levels.

So for the average person how can I better understand the situation so that I can help?  I think the best way to answer this question is by answering a few questions that will increase understanding of the problem

Why can’t they just quit?  Opioids are natural or synthetic chemicals that bind to receptors in your brain or body.  Opiates create artificial endorphins in the brain which produce good feelings in the user. However, as time progresses, opiates cause the body to halt the natural production of its own endorphins. At this point, the only way the person can experience normal positive feelings is by continued use of the drug. As the body shuts down its own natural production the user becomes physically desperate. The body must have the medication in order to function. When the opioids are absent in the body, the person becomes both mentally and physically ill and cannot function.   If he stops taking the drugs he will face days of severe sickness, depression, paranoia, and work loss.  Many opioids produce more than 100 times the effect than that of our natural endorphins and this throws the body into shut down mode if it is denied the opioid.

Quitting must involve medical attention (a detox facility) as death is a possible scenario when coming down off of opioids.  Detox facilities and hospitals are overloaded with opioid abusers which makes help more difficult to find.  Once medical attention is obtained, the addict must then submit to long term recovery solutions through either outpatient meetings, counseling, and accountability or residential recovery. A person who has abused opioids for years will normally require long term residential recovery as he or she has learned behaviors that drive them back to opioid use even after detox. Lack of insurance, expense and time required will usually deter a person from committing to help.

How did we get here?  What is causing both young and old, rich and poor, men and women to destroy their lives with drugs?

There is no single answer that I can give from a purely human stand point.  No one wakes up one day and decides to destroy his or her life with drugs.  But there are some common factors that I believe bring us to where we are today. I will offer four factors here:

Emptiness:  Over the years I have counseled numerous men and women who are caught up in serious drug addiction.  The most common theme is emptiness. Christians and non-Christians alike are empty.  Almost every person has divorce or some type of family abandonment in their past.  The break down of the family plays a tremendous role in whether or not a teen or young adult will look for someone or something to fill the void in their lives.Social media: No society has ever had the access to information like ours.  In the not so distant past Information flowed to us in small bits.  The morning news, the evening news, newspapers and magazines.  We absorbed only what we deemed important in small amounts of time while children played outside.  Today, the information flow is constant and interactive via cell phones and social media to all ages.  Everyone has an opinion and we express it publicly.  People say and display things on social media that intensify emotions and reactions. We tend to operate in an emotionally stimulated society in ways that the body was never intended to operate.  I believe this has driven up instances of mental instability and illnesses in a way we have never seen before.  Narcissism amongst high school and college students is rampant. Each of us has traits of narcissism. Social media exploits this and for many emboldens them to boast excessively while drawing more and more attention to themselves.  They are rewarded with “likes” and “shares.”  Many people believe Facebook is the perfect place to attract narcissists.  In actuality Facebook only draws out our narcissism and creates emotional instability as the brain and body become consistently overstimulated which causes discouragement, depression, and extreme anxiety disorders. The answer is typically found through self-medicating with prescription pain medication and/or heroin.Mental illness/instability: Certainly, not all mental illness or mental instability is caused by social media.  There are many other causes to include mental and physical abuse, sexual abuse, bullying, and hormone or chemical abnormalities in the body.  The rate of suicidal tendencies and ideations among today’s teenagers and young adults is staggering.  The teen who is facing serious mental challenges to include suicidal thoughts or ideations is scared and yet too embarrassed let anyone know the struggles she faces. Additionally, she is most likely living in a broken or unstable home with a parent or parents who have no idea what to do.  I consistently speak with parents who tell me their child has been struggling with these thoughts since their early teen years and assumed it would just “go away.”  Once the child is in college and away from home, she turns to drugs and alcohol to “get away” from her thoughts.Access: We live in a society of comfort and wealth even among the poorest citizens. Our over commercialized society convinces us that we deserve to live pain free and problem free. The pharmaceutical industry is happy to accommodate our desire for comfort.  Many people are prescribed legitimate medications, but are often taking multiple medications that when taken together increase the risk of addiction. Access to medications for almost any problem is a great contributor to opioid addiction.

Who can fix this problem? President Trump stated, "Ending the epidemic will require mobilization of government, local communities, and private organizations. It will require the resolve of our entire country."

Certainly the government has a role to play in areas that government is designed to work best.  These include law enforcement and bringing to justice all bad actors in this epidemic.  Government must also work with pharmaceutical companies to ensure that highly addictive and dangerous medications are either removed from the market of adjusted to reduce their addictive properties.

However, government programs such as methadone clinics and other medication-assisted programs are extremely ineffective and often create further addictions. According to the Centers for Disease Control, Methadone was listed first among the most common drugs involved in prescription opioid overdose deaths in 2013 along with Oxycodone and Hydrocodone (https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/opioids/prescribed.html).

In reality the least effective agencies are Federal and State governments.  This problem must be attacked by local communities.  Yes, it is good that larger government agencies are taking notice and sounding the alarm, but it is local communities that have immediate resources and money that can be accessed and actuated quickly.  Government money and resources are slow and bureaucratic.

Local hospitals, detox facilities, and courts in partnership with faith-based, Christ-centered recovery programs is the road to our nation’s greatest success for victory in this epidemic.  Today the greatest network for recovery rests in churches across America.  Whether they hold weekly meetings for the addicted and their loved ones, offer personal counseling, hold church services where the addicted are welcomed and loved, or even offering long-term residential treatment. The church is God’s greatest support group.

America is addicted.

God’s church and His Word have the answer. We as a nation are in crisis.  Addiction and substance abuse are merely the symptoms to much deeper problems that God’s Word can resolve for the willing man or woman.

The church must practice love, care, mercy, truth and patience.  We must not argue with, enable, or belittle the addicted.  We must give them the tools, time and space for God to work in their hearts and minds.  The addict must recover himself through the power and grace of God and the support of the local church.  God fixes them as they allow God to fix them. We can’t force anyone onto the road of freedom, but we can certainly point the way.