What’s Being Done to Stem Overdose Deaths?
2018 saw nearly 1,500 opiate-related overdose deaths. The majority of these deaths were linked to Fentanyl, a highly potent, addictive, and subsequently dangerous synthetic pain killer, and health officials say there needs to be a new approach to combating this rapidly rising epidemic before British Columbia will see a decrease in those numbers.
When used in a medical setting/under careful supervision, opiates can be of benefit to patients depending on the circumstances in which they have been prescribed. However, it is when they are abused that they become problematic – and it can be quite easy to fall into the dangerous pattern of addiction when not careful, such as not following dosing instructions, sharing your medication or taking someone else’s medication that was not prescribed to you. Individuals with a previous history of alcohol or drug abuse (whether abuse of prescription drugs or other illicit drugs, such as cocaine or heroin) are also at an increased risk of relapsing into addiction.
When taking opiates on a long-term basis, the body eventually develops a tolerance (also known as dependency) to the drug, and your body will send signals to the brain telling it that it needs more. As a result of this dependency, and if your body is giving off signals that it isn’t getting enough of the medication, you may develop cravings as well as symptoms of withdrawal. An addiction can also occur when an individual is no longer able to control their use of the drug in which they have been prescribed, or when they run out of their medication. When this is the case, they may try other means to obtain the medication, such as the streets, and while they may think the drug they’re taking is safe, there is a high likelihood that it could be laced with some (or a combination of other) deadly drugs, such as Fentanyl – which is anywhere from 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and heroin.
In order to help combat the opioid epidemic, it’s important to be aware of the many behavioural, cognitive, physical and psychosocial signs and symptoms associated with drug abuse/addiction. These include things like slowed thinking, depression, irritability, paranoia, poor concentration, poor motor skills, poor personal hygiene, constricted pupils, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, as well as social isolation and decreased performance at school or work. It’s also not uncommon for individuals who develop an addiction to doctor shop (to try and receive multiple prescriptions for opioids), lie about experiencing pain (also done in effort to receive multiple prescriptions), and impaired judgement. There are also certain risk factors that put some individuals at a higher likelihood of developing an addiction, such as family history of mental illness and/or substance abuse, experiencing trauma, chronic stress, and poverty.
To further combat this crisis, British Columbia’s health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, says drug users need to be provided safer alternatives. For example, she says that rather than focusing on the stigma and the criminalization of addiction, they need to be given low-barrier, regulated access to opioids, while also working diligently to put together resources to help address the very real problem of addiction. By providing individuals with this regulated access to opioids, it is the hope that it will curb them from turning to the streets for their drugs. In addition, St. Paul’s Hospital also recently launched a program that will provide individuals admitted to the hospital with a take-home kit of Suboxone upon discharge. Suboxone, which is a combination of Buprenorphine and Naloxone, is a medication that is used to treat adults who are addicted to drugs – whether they are illicit or legal. Suboxone not only helps reduce cravings, but can also decrease symptoms of withdrawal, and is known to cut death rates by as much as 50%. In addition to the use of Suboxone, patients who are experiencing or have previously experienced drug addiction should also attend regular counselling sessions. There are many reasons why someone may turn to drug abuse or the use of illicit drugs, and this type of therapy can be beneficial in changing one’s way of thinking as well as providing them with healthier ways to channel emotions, and even help them find rehabilitation services.