In the last 20 years, there have been about 841,000 drug overdose deaths in the United States. This number does not include overdoses that were non-fatal, as most are not reported unless death is the result. Unfortunately, when a person overdoses once and survives, the likelihood that they overdose again is relatively high. Over 70% of reported overdose deaths are related to opioids, whether it be prescription painkillers or heroin. Drug overdoses have reached epidemic proportions in the country, especially in the last two years as COVID-19 ravaged communities and led to an increase in both mental illnesses and drug use.
How Can We Prevent Overdoses?
As drug overdoses continue to take lives, prevention has become more and more important. Not only is it critical to make resources more accessible, but allowing people the chance to reach out and ask for help could be the difference between life and death.
Step 1: Make Resources Accessible
As of right now, there are various harm reduction websites and overdose prevention resources, but people struggling with addiction don’t know how to access them. There isn’t usually an easy place to find this information, and fear of legal repercussions keeps a lot of people from reporting overdoses when they do occur.
The more that opioid overdose and abuse are talked about and destigmatized, the easier it is for people to feel comfortable seeking help. Harm reduction websites provide tools and techniques for active users on how to prevent overdoses or the transmission of diseases that may be fatal. The National Harm Reduction Coalition is a great tool for active users. Not only does it increase access to clean syringes and Naloxone, but this coalition provides resources and support for people seeking help with their drug use or addiction.
Increasing access to Naloxone is also another tool that can be used to prevent overdoses. Naloxone works by rapidly reversing the effects of opioids. So, if someone is overdosing, this medication can rid the body of the drug and prevent a fatal overdose. Unfortunately, it does not work on other drugs, but it can save a life if opioids are involved. Though you do not typically need a prescription for Naloxone, most people don’t know where to access this medication. Most major pharmacies like CVS or Walgreens carry Naloxone on hand, but there are several different online resources that can also increase access to it:
Step 2: Destigmatize Rehab
The hardest part about drug addiction, especially if you are watching a loved one go through it, is asking for help. In some cases, a person may not even realize they are experiencing addiction, especially when using prescription medication like painkillers or benzodiazepines. We trust legal drugs, regardless of the possibly harmful side effects that may accompany them, simply because they are legal. And it is often too late when someone does realize they need help.
Though you cannot force a person to seek help, you can provide them with the information to make a decision about the care that they need. There are treatment centers that can address the needs of each person seeking help, whether they are dual diagnosis, only struggling with drug use, or need specialized care. There are even free and low-cost centers for those who are struggling financially.
Step 3: Know Your Rights
Though there are many different reasons why a person might overdose, one of the main causes of death by overdose is that people are afraid to call for help. There is often fear surrounding law enforcement and drug use. But, in many different states in the US, there are laws in place to protect both the user and the bystanders who call for help. Research the Good Samaritan Laws in your state to determine what your legal rights are.
Step 4: Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)
Because most overdose deaths are related to opioids, MAT is one of the best forms of prevention available. In 2016 alone there were over 2.1 million Americans struggling with an opioid use disorder related to prescription painkillers (OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin, etc.), and there were another 260,000 with a heroin use disorder.
Detoxing from these drugs can be an extremely uncomfortable and sometimes painful process. Utilizing FDA-approved medications, such as buprenorphine or Naltrexone, to minimize withdrawal symptoms, manage pain, and reduce cravings for opioids is not only a critical relapse prevention technique, but it can minimize the risk for relapse-related overdoses. Studies on the effectiveness of MAT show that not only can it reduce the risk for relapse and overdose, but these medications can also decrease the number of blood-born infections that are transmitted. It can also increase a person’s motivation to remain in addiction treatment, reduce the overall continued use of drugs, and improve relationships and functioning within society.
Another study showed that opioid users are 80% less likely to die from their drug use when having been treated with medications than those who were not. Though it may seem counterproductive to take more medications when trying to detox from prescription painkillers, these medications are not addictive and they are administered by medical professionals. Clients will receive supervision and support, along with different types of counseling. This not only minimizes the risk of overdose, but it is also a great way to ease a person into treatment and increase their motivation for change.
Addiction to prescription painkillers can be extremely confusing. You trust your doctors and you trust that the medications they prescribe are going to help rather than cause further harm. Knowing where to turn is critical in preventing a possibly fatal overdose. There are many different treatment facilities that specialize in opioid use disorders and medication assistance for those disorders. Finding help through one of these medically assisted treatment facilities can greatly reduce the risk of relapse and overdose as they provide specialized and effective programs designed to address prescription misuse.
Article By Mike Smeth
Mike Smeth is a mental health advocate based in Atlanta, Georgia who believes in equal access to life-saving resources. In addition to his work building online recovery resource websites, he writes articles for sites like Legal Reader and The Mindful Word. You can get in touch with him via Facebook, Instagram, or Pinterest.