Pandemic’s bright light on drug prevention

The other health crisis in 2020 – opioid misuse – has worsened under social isolation and economic strain. That should help shift the focus more to preventing addiction.

Social worker Chinnika Crisler in Tougaloo, Miss., sees her role as more than treating a patient's physical health. She makes sure people in isolation have access to food, transportation, etc.

Perhaps little known to most Americans, the United States was already in a health crisis long before the pandemic. Every year since 2017, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has declared opioid misuse to be a nationwide emergency. Since January, when the agency made its latest declaration, the problem has worsened. From January to June, abuse of synthetic and illegal opioids rose 13%. Fatal overdoses have already topped last year’s record-setting figures.

What’s different about the increase so far in 2020, however, is that the causes are pretty clear: social isolation and high joblessness brought on by COVID-19. Now instead of focusing mainly on stopping the flow of drugs or improving addiction treatment, the U.S. has gained a new perspective on prevention. And that doesn’t just mean loosening isolation rules, opening businesses, or boosting federal economic aid. Those measures will be needed for some time to stop the pandemic.

No, the broader lens now is on the many primary solutions that can forestall drug use. And it’s being helped along by this year’s social justice movement, which is exposing once again the roots of poverty and despair that lie behind much of the drug problem.

In August, the American College of Preventive Medicine took up arms for this cause. It issued a statement that said a “deep ethical imperative” exists to address all the “social determinants” of drug misuse, from race to education to crime.

Prevention programs must expand far beyond popular approaches like anti-drug education in schools and the campaign to reduce opioid prescriptions. Current trends toward opioid misuse favor a pharmacological approach rather than one that deals with the complex societal issues that drive the problem, the American College of Preventive Medicine stated. The U.S. must find better ways to strengthen families, end child abuse, provide affordable homes, train people for jobs, and improve mental health services.

To be sure, the nation’s focus on addiction recovery already looks at underlying causes. Many treatment programs take a “whole person” perspective. And the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration points to four dimensions that support recovery: health, home, purpose, and community. It would be natural, the statement said, to focus on how these moral and spiritual aspects of life can be used to identify and prevent opioid misuse.

After many years of a national drug emergency – now made worse by the pandemic – a bright light has finally fallen on the need to find better ways to help people steer clear of drugs. Treatment can begin long before addiction starts – by bringing health, home, purpose, and community to everyone.

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