Heroin, Headlines and a Cry for Help

tt117.jpgNo one ever woke up one day and said, “Today, I will become hooked on heroin.” However, for far too many New Jersey residents the pain of this disease is far too real. One of the most sobering experiences of my life was when I visited a heroin recovery support group. There, men and women, who continue to fight this sickness, shared with me their pain of addiction. I must admit I was not shocked by their stories, as my family has faced this scourge of addiction, but it did bring me right back to those difficult memories in my own life.

I listened to their stories of the intense high of heroin and how the feeling becomes so addictive that you will do anything and everything you can to feel that way again. How when you aren’t on it, your body aches and you cannot sleep or think clearly…or how your mind is dominated of thoughts on getting high again. I was told of the close calls with death and the abandonment of family and friends just to chase that high. They also shared with me their stories of immense regret and sadness, on how their lives had spiraled out of control…the fellow addicts they lost to this disease along the way and how they were seemingly powerless to combat their addiction.

Recently, radio station, 101.5 FM, had a special broadcast on its website regarding addiction issues. They included excellent sources for help, and you can find them at http://nj1015.com/as-nj-fights-heroin-addiction-ways-to-get-help/.

That broadcast also focused on grim statistics. In 2014, there were 781 heroin-related deaths in New Jersey, according to the state Department of Criminal Justice. They recorded more than 1,000 instances that someone had to administer Narcan, an overdose antidote.   “For years, New Jersey’s heroin death toll stayed comparatively stable, hovering in the mid-300s to mid-400s, and even getting as low as 306 in 2010. But it has been steadily increasing ever since then,” the report said.

There is plenty of research out there about this drug epidemic. Many health professionals view the issue through the prism of mental health. And if their assertion is correct, and we treat heroin and other drug dependencies as a mental health issue, it follows that we must offer those who suffer both physically and emotionally some form of intervention so that they have the help they need to overcome this plague.  

The bottom line in all of this, from a physiological standpoint, is that heroin affects the brain. There is no disagreement about this among the experts. And if there are still some out there who doubt it, who somehow think that willpower alone can “cure” it, let the experts speak.

“Studies have shown some deterioration of the brain’s white matter due to heroin use, which may affect decision-making abilities, the ability to regulate behavior, and responses to stressful situations,” according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse. “Heroin abuse is associated with a number of serious health conditions, including fatal overdose, spontaneous abortion, and infectious diseases like hepatitis and HIV. Chronic users may develop collapsed veins, infection of the heart lining and valves, abscesses, constipation and gastrointestinal cramping, and liver or kidney disease. Pulmonary complications, including various types of pneumonia, may result from the poor health of the user as well as from heroin’s effects on breathing.”

If the physical addition isn’t difficult enough, there is the issue of being stigmatized because you are or have been a drug user, a subject that arose during the radio broadcast I referenced previously.

“Stigma is one thing that keeps people from seeking treatment,” Acting Human Services Commissioner Elizabeth Connolly said during the broadcast. It keeps people from going out and reaching out for help.”     

One chat participant put the issue even more bluntly:

“Stigma alone kills thousands of people by stopping them from asking for help.”

During the broadcast, Connolly said she expects to see “new funding to raise reimbursements to treatment centers — and provide more slots for those seeking recovery options. It includes expanded use of drug courts, which provide mandatory treatment to first-time, nonviolent offenders. It includes more support for behavioral health homes that can address several issues in one setting.” I applaud the Commissioner and Governor Christie for recognizing that we need more resources in the areas of treatment and addiction services. Our state budget reflects this commitment but more needs to be invested. Absent this investment, local governments and community providers will not be able to meet the growing demand.

Despite the enormity of the problem, I remain an optimist in addressing this issue. With appropriate funding, professional health intervention for both the mind and body that is available to everyone and a public that is understanding of the victims, we can turn the tide. If you or someone you know has an addiction problem, I urge you to seek help. As has been said, there are no throw away lives in our country. Giving those who battle addiction the greatest opportunity to overcome their challenge and become productive members of our society is an outcome that we can all root for. That’s my take, what’s yours?

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