Given the widespread news and information on the opioid crisis, it is no longer a surprise that prescription drugs can be dangerous, particularly if misused or used for non-medical purposes. But it’s all too easy to write all prescription drugs off as ‘too dangerous to be used’, especially in this climate.
We tend to heavily lean towards one or the other extreme on many issues, and opioid overdoses is one of them. Rather than vilify all opioids, for example, most experts on the crisis would rather than increased public literacy on the matter of prescription drugs will help people and doctors make better choices when faced with a disorder or disease that may warrant prescription medication.
This has become a form of stigma in some cases. While most are aware of the existing stigma against those struggling with mental health issues, a new form of stigma has been slowly rising against the use of medication for the treatment of mental health problem. The misuse of ADHD medication is serious. But treatment is still important. Both children in need of help and adults who feel that ADHD is only a childhood disorder don’t get the help they need to thrive.
Proper discourse surrounding prescription drugs needs to consider how they can be dangerous, addictive, and even lethal, without forgetting that they do play a role in helping millions of Americans lead better lives. Nuance and context are important, particularly in such complex topics.
How Medicine Can Be Addictive
For most people, addiction is very poorly understood. It’s not so much that there are Bad Drugs and Good Drugs. Rather, there are addictive drugs and non-addictive drugs. Some addictive drugs serve no real medical purpose, but most do. Many that are still illegal continue to be researched for their potential medical benefits. Some drugs are wrongfully vilified as addictive, but are illegal for other reasons, and may be made legal in certain cases (for example, hallucinogens may prove helpful in treating trauma and anxiety).
Drugs are chemicals and have no moral compass. As such, it’s important not to mistake all good drugs (medication) as being wholly beneficial and much less dangerous to the human body. In the same way, it’s important to recognize that two of the arguably most dangerous drugs in the world (alcohol and tobacco) are completely legal and readily available to most people in the world.
As dangerous as addiction is, there’s more to addiction than the drug itself. While widespread availability is one of the reasons why drugs such as alcohol and tobacco are commonly used, there are countless other much more complex reasons that often feed and further fuel addiction that need to be taken account, such as a lack of education, constant academic or professional pressure, lack of employment, economic woes, family stress, and more. No one case can be blamed entirely on ‘the drink’, as these countless factors all contribute to addiction and make it so much more difficult to treat.
In the case of prescription medication, more must be done to ensure that teens and adults alike understand the dangers of prescription drug misuse, and that just because it comes in an orange vial doesn’t mean it’s any less dangerous than a bag of cocaine or tar heroin. In many cases, parents and communities should focus heavily on catching warning signs of addictive behavior and stopping someone before their habit goes out of control. If a teen or adult is in danger of turning to drugs as a way to cope, they must understand that it’s okay to get professional help instead of self-medicating, with disastrous results.
The Effects of Prescription Drugs on the Brain
Addictive prescription drugs are addictive because of the way they manipulate the availability and effectiveness of certain neurotransmitters in the brain. Most psychoactive chemicals affect neurotransmission – even coffee, to a degree – but addictive drugs are deemed such because the effect they have on the brain is so strong, and so specific to certain neurotransmitters, that the brain begins to form an attachment to the drug after a certain number of times.
Prescription drugs are less addictive to those who need them, partially because of the strictly regulated dosage, and partially because their brains respond very differently to the drug versus people who don’t need them.
Over time, what starts as a powerful high can lead to drug dependence, wherein both the body and the mind begin to struggle with staying sober. Withdrawal symptoms kick in, causing cravings and headaches when not high. As time passes, tolerance calls for stronger doses, further feeding the addiction and increasing the risk of overdose. The mechanics differ from drug to drug, and different drugs are addictive for different reasons.
Treating Prescription Drug Addiction While in Treatment
In the cases that an individual gets addicted to a drug that is specifically prescribed to them for their condition, alternatives must be thoroughly explored. Prescription medication is often considered a first line treatment for a variety of conditions: opioids for extreme pain, stimulants for ADHD, depressants for severe anxiety disorders, and anti-psychotics for schizophrenia and other disorders. While other treatments may be more effective in certain cases, prescription medication boasts a widespread level of effectiveness, and is often easier to prescribe than a treatment that requires scheduling, complex financing options, or other speedbumps.
However, in some cases, patients misuse or overuse their medication. It’s then that other treatments must be seriously considered. In cases where patients are struggling with a dual diagnosis, a multimodal approach is necessary. That means treating the addiction and the illness/disorder concurrently. Examples include going through rehab while undergoing therapy or visiting an outpatient treatment center and a mental health clinic at the same time.
Prescription drug use is a complex matter, and it’s made much more complex when a patient is abusing their own medication. But through early intervention, the right treatment plan, and proper support from friends and family, both the addiction and the underlying condition can often be treated.