Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Opioid Crisis: Treating Root Causes of Addiction

AARON MATÉ: Thank you for joining us. Let’s start first with what this crisis is. The figures on overdose deaths in the US are something like 140 every single day, two-thirds from opioids. Describe for us what kind of crisis we’re dealing with here.

GABOR MATÉ: As the President’s Commission said, every three weeks in the US you have the equivalence of a 9/11, so that every year, currently, you have 14, 15 9/11s happening. In that sense, it’s reasonable to speak about it as an emergency. Another sense, of course, it’s been going on for a long, long, long time, it’s just that the numbers have increased in the recent years.

AARON MATÉ: The numbers and also in terms of who the victims are, right, demographically?

GABOR MATÉ: Yes. It’s now been found that the life expectancy of the white, working, and middle class is decreasing because of alcoholism and drug overdoses. It’s a question of who it’s hitting. It was always certain sections of the population, but now it’s hitting the mainstream.

AARON MATÉ: The implication there is that that’s the reason why it’s perhaps getting so much more attention and resources now?

GABOR MATÉ: Well, there was an article in New York Times earlier this year which said exactly that, that because it’s now hitting the white middle class, people are really starting to wonder what it’s all about, and what else can you do beside the usual ineffective responses. It’s interesting enough that, in the 2016 election, Trump got some of the biggest support in areas that are hardest hit by alcoholism and the opioid crisis and suicides.

AARON MATÉ: Why do you think that is?

GABOR MATÉ: That speaks to the very heart of addiction and what drug use is all about. It’s all about an attempt to escape from desperation. Those areas are the areas of the country with the greatest desperation. Those are the ones that most were susceptible to Trump’s message.

AARON MATÉ: Okay, let’s talk about that. You talk about addiction being an attempt to escape desperation. You’ve worked with addicts over many years. You were a physician at the Portland Hotel Society, which is a residential and hospice service for residents of Vancouver’s downtown east side, an area with a huge drug problem. Talk more about that, addiction being rooted in an attempt to escape adverse conditions.

GABOR MATÉ: If you look at the opioids, what are they? The opioids have been used in medicine for thousands of years. Used for what? Used for pain relief. They’re the most powerful pain relievers that we have. They don’t only soothe physical pain, they also soothe emotional pain. It turns out that the same area of the brain that experiences suffering from physical pain also experiences suffering from emotional pain. In other words, the primary question in any addiction, but especially in opioid addiction, is not why the addiction, but why the pain?

We have to look at what is the pain that people are trying to escape from. For that, there are two major causes. One cause is childhood trauma. We talk about how childhood trauma actually affects the brain in such a way as to make it more susceptible to addictions later on. Childhood trauma is one source of deep pain and all the addicts I worked with have been traumatized significantly so. That’s what the large scale studies in the US shows about it, the more trauma in childhood, exponentially the greater the risk of addiction. Childhood trauma is a huge problem in our society and in American society.

The other question is, what’s going on right now? That’s stress. What we also know is that stress makes the brain more susceptible to addiction and stress also makes people more desires of escape from the stress. If you look at what’s happening socially, economically, politically, culturally, is increasing insecurity, increasing stress, increasing uncertainty, increasing difficulty for people. Therefore, people will turn to short-term measures to escape those difficulties, or at least the awareness of them, by escaping into addictions, including drug use. What we’re looking at is, A, childhood trauma, and B, severe social stress. It’s not surprising that the areas where Trump got the greatest support are areas of great social stress. (...)

AARON MATÉ: Quite likely, they’re using drugs to deal or cope with those mental health issues?

GABOR MATÉ: Very often drugs are, apart from the general escape that provide from stress and emotional pain and distress, they’re also specifically self-medications for diagnosable mental conditions such as post traumatic stress, such as depression, such as anxiety, such as attention deficit hyperactive disorder, such as bipolar illness, such as social phobia and so on. Again, these conditions and their basis in trauma all have to be addressed if we’re to help addicts, addicted people really overcome their problem.

AARON MATÉ: Okay, so a final question, and it’s also about psychology, I’m curious your thoughts on what is the psychology of those who stigmatize addicts, who have a hard time seeing them as people in need, people with pain, more seeing them from a criminal perspective? What, in your view, is going on there?

GABOR MATÉ: (...) If you look at American society or Western society in general, it’s a highly addictive culture. People have all kinds of addictions. There’s not really a deep difference between drug addictions, and sex addiction, and gambling addiction, and shopping addiction, and eating additions, in terms of their causes, in terms of their brain circuits, and in terms of negative impact.

AARON MATÉ: Well, but listen, a lot of people would push back on that and say, “You can’t compare the impact of heroin use to the impact of gambling or sex or whatever else.”

GABOR MATÉ: Well, first of all, we can make a more direct comparison if we look at cigarettes use or alcohol use. You can make a direct comparison between cigarette use and alcohol use and, on the one hand, in heroin use and the other. You know what the comparison says? The comparison says that heroin use is far safer. In other words, if you take a thousand people who smoke or drink heavily or who inject heroin, as long as they don’t overdose, 30 years from now, there’ll be a lot more disease, a lot more death in the alcohol and cigarette groups than in the heroin group.

by Jerri-Lynn Scofield, Naked Capitalism | Read more:
Image: Tek Image/Science Photo Library/Getty
[ed. Finally, someone gets it right. It's an epidemic of despair, stress, trauma, social isolation and economic instability. Unless we deal with the factors causing those conditions, this epidemic can't help but continue. See also: Why social capital could be the key to solving America’s overdose epidemic]