How big a problem is the opioid crisis? A question ‘that has little agreement across the country’
A doctor who has repeatedly campaigned against the prescription of addictive opioid painkillers says Americans still have a long way to go in tackling the epidemic.
Nearly three decades after the US government declared a “national health emergency” over rising death rates from opioid overdoses, and despite some new efforts, Elroy Gardner, a member of the board of the Comprehensive Pain Management Project, feels the problem has not moved past the margins.
‘What we did here was unimaginable’: combatting opioid addiction Read more
It’s hard to know how much a president’s policy can, or will, actually work. Photograph: Frederic J Brown/AFP/Getty Images
“I see this particular issue as about human dynamics. It’s about who is going to pick up the slack. It’s not about if, it’s about when,” Gardner said in an interview with the Guardian. “What do you do when our children and our children’s children grow up knowing that your family doesn’t live in constant pain?”
On Thursday, President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a national public health emergency and promised measures to improve access to addiction treatment and push doctors to prescribe less addictive painkillers.
About 142 Americans die each day from drug overdoses, according to the latest federal figures. Experts say opioids are now killing roughly three times as many people as heroin, and are the leading killer of people between the ages of 30 and 64.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that between 10 million and 12 million people in the US are using opioid painkillers regularly. There are more than 2 million people who have been prescribed opioids at some point, a number that has been rising steadily.
Advocates for more funding for treatment and prevention say reducing overdoses should be the highest priority, and the strategy can only be successful when opioids are gone.
According to a survey conducted by the political analytics company Morning Consult, 76% of voters supported Trump’s decision. The shares of voters who strongly support the move run as high as 90%.
But “what is it about the crisis that has little agreement across the country?” said Andrew Jin, a professor of medical sociology at Duke University. “And how do we more broadly reconcile these differences when we come to the treatment of addiction?”
According to Jieman, a national survey suggests the reason the response to opioid addiction is so fragmented is that a majority of Americans don’t understand how opioid dependence develops and how addiction treatment works.
“The general tone in America is that addiction is just like any other disease,” he said. “People want to believe it’s somebody else’s problem and that there’s no place for government to be involved.”
In Mississippi, Gardner founded the Comprehensive Pain Management Project (CPMP) to bridge the gulf between the challenges facing patients struggling with pain and the lack of attention the issue receives from US policymakers.
But in the face of inadequate resources, the CPMP operates on a shoestring budget and has performed a growing number of outreach projects that are both large and small, focused on grass roots tactics as well as state and federal programs.
“We basically empower people to tell their stories,” Gardner said. “There’s a hope that will spread among the community.”
The CPMP hopes to shift these conversation from the rhetorical to the tangible, finding ways to fix barriers to treatment and making it easier for people to find and access long-term services that work for them.
“We’re deeply concerned that we’re not fulfilling these needs for those in need,” Gardner said. “At some point the physician has to [help] the patient but they also have to choose where to put their energy.”