How to help a friend or loved one overcome the stigma of opioid addiction
By Clare Waismann
When you think of a typical drug addict, what comes to mind? Someone living on the streets? A person with no job, no family, and no future? This may be our normal vision of someone addicted to drugs, but the harsh truth is that most people who use opioids continue to live a “normal” life in the shadows of their addiction.
Here, we’ll take a look at some simple ways that you can help a loved one address – and overcome – addiction. Then, we invite your questions or comments at the end.
Who Struggles with Opioid Addiction?
Opioid addiction can strike anyone:
- the young adult that had so many life dreams
- the soccer mom
- the businessman wearing a suit to work every day
- the grandmother we could always count on
Recent reports indicate that the average heroin user is no longer inner city youth, but rather 20-something young adult of suburbia. Meanwhile, prescription drug use is escalating amongst the nation’s senior population.
Why Is Opioid Abuse on the Rise?
With more and more painkillers being prescribed to patients (The CDC reports that nearly 2 million Americans abused or were dependent on prescription opioids in 2014 ), it is no wonder that more and more people are becoming dependent – and even addicted – to these dangerous drugs. Young people involved in sports are too often prescribed opioids to get them back on the playing field as quickly as possible, which sets them up for dependence on the drug to play.
Meanwhile, older adults often rely on powerful drugs like:
…to get through the painful results of failing health. Why, even some new mothers are prescribed powerful painkillers following natural as well as Cesarean births. Add to that the struggles of new parenthood and it comes as no surprise that many of these women become dependent – or even addicted – to medications meant to help them.
How Can You Read the Warning Signs?
If there is any good news when it comes to opioid addiction, it is the fact that most patients have some warning of a growing dependence on the drug – if only they would take note of the signs. That is why it is important for friends and family members to watch carefully whenever opioids are prescribed.
The first clue of a growing dependence on the medication, is the need for higher and higher doses to relieve the pain the medication has been prescribed for. This is an indication that the body is building a tolerance for the drug, needing more to experience the same results. As this tolerance exacerbates, dependence develops, potentially into a full-blown addiction.
Breaking Past the Stigma of Drug Abuse
Still, one of the biggest hurdles isn’t just addiction or dependence itself, rather it is overcoming the stigma of drug addiction. With stark images of a typical drug addict in their head, many people (especially older adults), never seek help, thus almost guaranteeing a continued addiction or dependence to the drug.
Q: What can you do to help a friend or loved one battle their reliance on opioid medications?
A: For many, education is the key.
Understanding the difference between physical dependence and addiction may help them overcome their fear of being labeled “a drug addict.” Once a patient understands the growing problem with opioid addiction in today’s society – and how many people just like them have fallen victim to the disease – they may be more agreeable to seeking help.
This isn’t easy though. Stereotypes of drug addicts aren’t just something the patient himself must overcome, but his/her family and friends. Educating yourself on this opioid epidemic will help you become better prepared to offer the kind of support and assistance your loved one will need in facing and overcoming their addiction.
What You Can Do to Help
When faced with the addiction of someone they care about, most people do not know how to respond. Learning what you should do for your friend or family member is vital to getting them the kind of help they need. But where should you begin? Here are a few tips:
1. Don’t Judge. Anyone can fall victim to opioid abuse without even realizing it. After all, prescriptions are meant to be taken and are supposed to help – not hinder – the patient. Being judgmental is only going to send the person into deeper hiding. Trying to guilt or embarrass the person will never help the situation, and will likely only make the problem worse. It is always better to offer loving support and patient guidance when dealing with any level of addiction.
2. Get Educated. At the same time, be cognizant if opioids are getting in the way of living life. It is often not until the drug user has built up a tolerance for the medication with dependence surfacing, that they even recognize a problem.
3. Be Empathetic. Being empathetic doesn’t mean you have to accept the behavior or make excuses for it. What it does mean is that you have the ability to understand and share the feelings of the person battling the addiction. Empathy can go a long way to helping someone strip away the stigma of drug abuse and freeing them to seek the help they need to break their addiction.
4. Show Love and Support. Breaking free of any addiction is difficult. Those who have the love and support of the people in their lives experience a much better recovery rate than those who don’t. Knowing they are not alone, can help propel them forward towards an opiate-free life.
It can be difficult to face the addiction of someone you care about. But remember their recovery hinges on securing a support system that can help them break free from the stigma of addiction in order to get the help they need to move past opiate abuse, and onto a healthier life.