Drug addiction an urgent priority among mental health professionals: Opinion
The number of deaths from prescription pain relievers in the past 10 years was four times higher than those from cocaine and heroin combined
© Albert Greenwood
As a doctor with decades of experience in treating drug addiction, I am often frustrated by the common misperception that addiction is primarily a problem among the fringes of society. Actually, this problem is seen across all walks of life, including celebrities, young millennials and even executives.
The sooner our society recognizes this fact, the more attention will be paid to improved legislation, aggressive treatment modalities and early intervention.
Sadly, a major villain in this war appears to be the friendly physician’s prescription pad. The number of deaths from prescription pain relievers in the past 10 years was four times higher than those from cocaine and heroin combined. The use of drugs such as oxycodone for short-term pain relief has spiraled into a major health care crisis. Sales of legally prescribed oxycodone exceeded $2.7 billion in 2012.
This suggests that many relatively minor injuries, such as sprains and strains, are now being treated with opioids. This short-term treatment can transform itself into long-term opioid dependency.
In 2010, nearly 60 percent of the 38,329 drug overdose deaths in the United States were attributed to prescription drugs. A new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a growing epidemic of prescription drug misuse. The death rate from prescription painkiller overdose rose 415 percent among women and 265 percent among men in a little over a decade, the study found.
In response, the Food and Drug Administration has recommended regulatory changes for hydrocodone products and proposed new limitations on prescribing.
As an independent neuropsychiatrist, I have been concerned professionally with the issue of addiction since 1974. I know from my 40 years of experience that opioids can cause devastating changes to the brain, including cell loss, brain shrinkage (amygdala and hippocampal gyrus areas), and accelerated aging of the brain. The public does not realize that recreational drug use can have such long-term consequences.
Put simply, the brain can be permanently damaged. It is unethical for a physician to prescribe substances that can alter brain tissue for superficial reasons. Opioid use beyond three or four months can cause dependency. I often see short-term memory deficits among adolescents or adults who have used opioids for one year or more.
Drug addiction — for decades a pressing world health issue — is now an urgent priority among mental health professionals. I am especially concerned about the increasing number of adolescents who come to me with a long history of drug abuse.
Since 1974, I have treated nearly 2,000 addicted patients. Perhaps the most important lesson I have learned is that treating drug addiction is never a one-size-fits-all proposition. No two patients have quite the same addiction profile; I have found that many addicts benefit from intensive, individualized and prolonged therapy.
Individualized treatment regimens have proved so effective that many patients have been able to return to full-time employment, a remarkable outcome in light of the pessimistic prognoses of the professional community and even the patients themselves.
When such treatment is combined with increased legal oversight of certain drug prescriptions, innovative intervention programs and greater attention from the general public, I believe we can go far toward resolving this burgeoning health crisis.
Albert Greenwood is a psychiatrist based in Old Bridge Township who specializes in drug addiction and alcoholism. He is the former medical director of Manhattan’s Psychiatric Hospital in New York. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.