The United States as a whole is bearing the brunt of opioid addiction, with around 52 million Americans age 12 and over having used prescription drugs in a non-medical fashion, sometimes turning to heroin when these drugs become unavailable. Indeed, Americans consume an alarming 75 per cent of the world’s supply of prescription drugs. Opioid abuse does not affect all equally, however, with statistics indicating that some areas are harder hit than others. The use of overdose drug, Narcan, for instance, has increased dramatically in Boston, particularly in Roxbury, followed by the South End, South Boston, Charlestown, and Jamaica Plain, according to the Emergency Medical Services. Some areas have seen a 77 percent rise in the use of Narcan over a 12-month period that ended on June 28 this year. The drug was administered by emergency crews, civilians, members of the police force and even firefighters.
Staff at the Emergency Medical Services claim that they have recently witnessed more overdose deaths than ever before. Despite government attempts at quelling the drug problem, it seems to be expanding. One reason for the alarming statistics is the greater availability of Narcan, which can now be purchased over-the-counter. Narcan reverses the effects of opioids such as morphine, codeine, Vicodin, oxycodone, and methadone. When a person is overdosing on these drugs, breathing can slow down and even stop. Narcan successfully reverses these negative effects without producing a high. Since brain damage can occur within just a few minutes of the commencement of an overdose, Narcan is a life-saving drug, since it gives individuals the time they need to call emergency services and carry out first aid procedures.
However, the increased availability of Narcan does not account for the entirety of the problem. Emergency Medical Services have also noted that there has been an increased demand for transport services for patients who have overdosed or who are under the influence of narcotics. The number of hospital visits has also risen, indicating there are actually more people abusing narcotics and requiring aid. Staff at Whittier Street note that overdoses even occur within the health center itself.
Thus far, some of the efforts made to deal with the issue include training in the use of Narcan throughout Boston and greater coordination between the police, firefighters, and emergency health workers, to ensure patients receive the attention they need. Rehabilitation is also key, with health centers adopting both traditional methods (e.g. the 12-Step approach to recovery and behavioral therapy), alongside newer techniques such as yoga, mindful meditation and journaling. The latter aim at inducing a mindful state in which the person in recovery acknowledges their temptation to take drugs, without giving in. Techniques such as journaling encourage a person in recovery to note down their triggers (the situations and/or people that spark a craving or temptation to indulge in drugs).
Unfortunately, the Boston Medical Center’s Addiction Treatment Program is already treating more patients than it can, and has expressed concerns that it cannot meet the ever-growing demand. Other health care providers claim that the inner city has long been suffering from this problem, which seems to have been recognized too late. Although the increased use of Narcan is positive in terms of the number of lives saved, it also indicates that there is a greater need for rehabilitation treatment, and more resources need to be set aside for this purpose. Often, those who are addicted to opioids need to complete several rounds of treatment before managing to give up long-term.
A report published by the Blue Cross Blue Shield last year noted that Boston lacks substance abuse treatment beds and is suffering from poor coordination between different treatment programs. Thus, patients who have just been through detox can be forced to face long queues to get into a residential program, and during the long wait, relapse can occur. There are too many opportunities, states the report, for addicts to ‘fall through the cracks’. An additional problem is that individuals taking up beds in Boston’s treatment centers hail from beyond the city – this is because Boston’s substance abuse treatment is state-based. Meanwhile, waiting times for beds across the state can average out to over 21 days. The report recommends that the city increase the number of beds for detoxification and residential care, and the establishment of a central source of real-time information that lets patients know which treatment services are available. Care should be continuous and integrated, to avoid the likelihood of relapse.
Anne Loughran is a writer and stay-at-home mom who formerly worked in the healthcare sector. Now she divides her time between writing articles, looking after her two demanding youngsters and volunteering for a number of charity projects for mental health concerns.