Дневники

Дневники

The Opioid Pandemic

The drug problem has concerned people for decades; from the spread of marijuana and heroin in the 1960s, to crack and cocaine in the 1980s and then Speed and LSD in the 1990s. The past decade or so we have seen the use of prescription narcotic painkillers spiral out of control.
 
Yet drug use is no longer merely a problem. It is not even merely an epidemic, rather it has magnified to a pandemic. Opioids in particular have fueled this crisis.
 
The Opioid Crisis has affected individuals not just nationwide but even worldwide. An epidemic is an outbreak that spreads through one or more communities. A pandemic on the other hand is when an epidemic spreads throughout the world. Tragically, the Opioid Crisis has reached the level of a pandemic. 
 
According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) close to 1,000,000 lives have been lost in the US due to drug overdose since 1999, with opioid deaths making up the lion's share of this sobering statistic.  Former President Trump declared the Opioid Crisis a state of emergency nationwide in 2017. 
 
Unfortunately, the problem is expected to continue to grow and claim even more lives in the years ahead.
 
Some experts believe that the Opioid Pandemic originated with the drug manufacturers making prescription drug medications more and more addictive. These potent drugs were then sold by drug distributors to local independent pharmacies, exceeding their regulatory thresholds. Doctors were given incentives to write narcotic prescriptions even if a patient’s medical condition did not warrant them. These drugs then reached the black market, working their way to the streets of America where they are sold along with illicit drugs like heroin and cocaine.  
Many of the victims of this opioid crisis did not have any prior history of any kind of illicit drug use. Many had an injury or health condition which caused tremendous pain that necessitated the need for such medications. However, due to the addictive nature of these medications, what began as a source of relief turned into a crippling dependency which continued even after their health conditions improved. 
 
After only a few weeks or even in some cases a few days, many people developed a dependency on these drugs. Unfortunately, many physicians (whether intentionally or negligently) continued to prescribe the same drugs without any legitimate medical need. Even when doctors refused to write new prescriptions, these opioids had already become available on the black market (as mentioned earlier); thus, the pandemic spread.
 
There have been several episodes of the news program 60 Minutes discussing the developments of the Opioid Pandemic (see here, herehere, and here, for example). 
 
No demographic is immune to this pandemic. It has affected people of all ethnic/religious and socio-economic backgrounds. Many of our fellow Orthodox Christians are included in the casualties of this pandemic. 
 
We should note that the victims of this Opioid Pandemic do not only include drug users themselves. The scope of this problem has affected our health care workers who treat addicted individuals. Imagine for a moment the ethical challenges our faithful healthcare workers face day after day who have to prescribe, dispense and administer narcotic medications in the midst of this pandemic. 
 
We the Church, both as a royal and ministerial priesthood in Christ, have a responsibility to become more aware of this pandemic and do what we can to intervene so that more lives are not lost Over 1,000,000 lives, an astronomical number, have already been lost since 1999. It is time for us to act. 
 
This does not simply mean ministering to those who are addicted but also providing support for those who are in recovery, for the families and friends who have endured seeing their love ones suffer and perhaps perish from this pandemic and for those who are interacting with all the above on a daily basis in the healthcare field. 
While we should, of course, care for our fellow Christians, our mission should not end there. Christ said to his Apostles, “You are the light of the world…Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven (Mt 5: 14, 16).” We Christians, united in this battle against this horrific adversary, the opioid pandemic, have both a duty and opportunity to lead not only this nation but the world in defeating this crisis. 
 
Let not our efforts stop at our Orthodox faithful but let them include the entire world. Our response can be twofold:
 
1. Raising Awareness 
 
To help care for those battling addiction, we need to first have a better understanding and awareness of the problem. Ministry leaders must reach out to our faithful and raise awareness of the opioid pandemic. This can include offering discussion groups, providing literature in bulletins and posting information on websites and social media. 
Specifically, the information provided would include a synopsis of the problem, who it affects and, what the options are for remedy and where to find them.
 
(See, for example, here and here.)
 
2. Offering Support and Treatment
 
Note that support takes different shape for the needs of different people. Three groups of people are affected by the opioid pandemic: (i) health care workers who face this crisis on a daily basis, (ii) addicts and recovering addicts, and (iii) families and friends of the latter. 
 
Regarding the second group, if we know of any people in our families and communities who are struggling with addiction, we should loving encourage them to seek help. 
 
Drug/Alcohol counseling, Methadone clinics and 12 Step Programs like NA (Narcotics Anonymous) are a few options for addicts.
 
Regarding the third group, NA offers support groups for friends and family of addicts
 
Unfortunately, the first group (healthcare workers who interact with addicts or potential addicts). Healthcare workers have been on the front lines with this crisis just like they were during the dark days of COVID-19. In fact, the Opioid Pandemic worsened during the COVID-19 Pandemic. According to the CDC, in 2019 there were 50,042 opioid related deaths but in 2020 that number nearly doubled with 91,799 deaths. This was due to less oversight, thus, “checks and balances” as a result of the lockdowns and heavy restrictions related to COVD.  
 
The healthcare workers were rightly deemed the heroes of 2020 but are indeed the unsung heroes of the Opioid Pandemic that has been among us for more than two decades. Many of them face spiritual, psychological and ethical challenges. Certainly, PTSD is prevalent among these workers due to aforementioned challenges. 
 
The Opioid Pandemic is a serious issue with worldwide scope. As serious and overwhelming as this issue may be, we each have the power to help raise awareness and offer support/treatment in our families and communities. 
 
These achievable calls to action can be undertaken in a spirit of hope because with Christ nothing is impossible. For He said to His Disciples just before His Passion: be of good cheer, I have overcome the world (Jn 16:33).
 

-John Athanasatos, PharmD, MDiv

A graduate of Long Island University, College of Pharmacy, and Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, John works to share the richness and beauty of the Orthodox Faith with the wider community.