Some prescription drugs have the potential to be as addictive as ‘hard street drugs’, like heroin or cocaine, as well as more common addictive substances that account for most drug-related deaths, like alcohol and tobacco.
A drug is a drug is a drug, but addictive drugs stand in their own category due to the dangers they present after long-term use, especially among people who are already at risk of addiction due to both internal (genetic) as well as external (stress, abuse, mental health) risk factors.
While opioids – particularly ones mired in recent scandals, like OxyContin – have begun to carry significant infamy in the wake of the growing opioid crisis, it’s important to recognize that other addictive prescription drugs, while therapeutic in certain cases, are still often overprescribed and pose a serious danger.
Amphetamines and Other Stimulants
Stimulants are used to treat ADHD and narcolepsy and are meant to effectively energize or speed up the central nervous system. While they are often touted as improving memory and focus, that is not necessarily true. Despite this, they have been abused by students and stressed workers aiming to meet deadlines, study and pass difficult tests, or continue to work while struggling with sleep deprivation. Truck workers and shift workers are common users of illegal prescription stimulants.
The most common prescription stimulants that are abused for their euphoric and energizing effects are amphetamine (Adderall) and methylphenidate (Ritalin).
Anti-Anxiety Drugs and Other CNS Depressants
While stimulants invigorate, depressants calm down. They have legitimate uses in the treatment of severe anxiety and seizures, but these drugs are also abused both as sedatives and because of their mild euphoric effect. Their effects on the brain are similar to alcohol, which is also a depressant.
The most common prescription depressants that are abused are alprazolam (Xanax), diazepam (Valium), and clonazepam (Klonopin). These drugs are known as benzodiazepines. Other depressants that are rarely prescribed but still circulated include barbiturates and tranquilizers.
Opioids are any kind of drug that affect opioid receptors, and they’re largely composed of drugs derived from the poppy plant, and synthetic drugs that work in a similar fashion. Opioids are used primarily as painkillers, but they interact with depressants, often in a dangerous way. While opioids are inarguably an important part of treating critical pain and terminal pain, the argument can be made that they are still being overprescribed.
Commonly abused prescription opioids include oxycodone (Oxycontin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), codeine, and meperidine (Demerol). Fentanyl is a prescription drug involved in over half of opioid overdoses, often by being mixed into a batch of illegal heroin to increase the drug’s potency after it is cut with filler substances.
More Than Just a Side-Effect: How Our Healthcare Affects Addiction
It’s no secret that there are long-standing problems with the country’s current healthcare system, especially in regard to mental healthcare. While the War on Drugs has been a major financial focus for several of the past administrations, the investment into improving mental healthcare and helping addicts recover and stay sober has been subpar.
This matters. Many addicts know that there’s little being done to help them become productive members of society, versus the effort put into ensuring they continue to have problems with the legal system. While it’s been proven several times that a punishing attitude towards addiction and drug use doesn’t work, and a therapeutic one has a better potential of impacting the problem, little has been done to bring about meaningful change.
Addicts often internalize this, and that’s a problem too. The stigma demonstrated by both the system and those who feel that addiction is a choice and a matter of responsibility rather than mental health continue to affect any given addict’s chances at recovery, as the odds seem impossibly stacked against them.
An important thing to keep in mind is that despite the fact that drugs in themselves are dangerous, and prescription drugs continue to be a potential danger for people who struggle with the factors that characterize addiction, it’s also important not to put the wagon in front of the horse.
It’s arguably the demand that needs to be addressed the most, rather than the supply. Both the environmental and genetic factors that inform an addiction are difficult to address but are still important to take note of.
These include family life (stress, abuse, feeling distant or removed from family life), bullying, peer pressure, overwhelming pressure and stress at school/work, family history, pressure to perform better mentally or physically, and a personal history of anxiety or prolonged sadness/depression.
Teens are especially at risk as their age makes their brains more prone to developing an addiction through drug use, and their natural curiosity or potential ignorance of a drug’s full effects (especially in regard to prescription drugs) can make them more likely to use early on.
What Can You Do?
As a member of a family with an addicted loved one, you can seek to inform yourself and help those around you inform themselves on the topic of addiction, better understand what factors feed drug use and continue to prevent recovery and encourage relapse, and learn more about how to better support your loved one in the difficult struggle against addiction, helping them seek professional help where necessary.
As an addict, you can continue to seek help and seek resources to better improve your toolkit in combatting addiction, and develop a support system to help keep you sane and sober on days when you feel like everything is making you lose control, and nothing is in your power – and take advantage of the good days by progressing in ways that matter to you the most, from doing your best at work, to being helpful at home, or being a better partner for your loved one.
As a citizen, you can continue to inform yourself on when and where to vote, and who to vote for, keeping an eye out for candidates that prioritize a better health care and mental health system, who seek to prevent the opioid crisis from repeating itself or growing even worse by addressing both the demand and the supply of drugs, rather than uselessly punishing drug users for their illness and further salting the wounds that led to their addiction.
Doing your best to fight against addiction requires a multifaceted approach, taking into account what role you play for yourself, your family, your community, and your country, and then making the best choices you can, whenever you can, and learning from the bad ones. No one is perfect, and no single person will fix a problem as big as this – but awareness is an important first step, and it needs to be followed up with more learning, and further action.