Treating the Opioid Epidemic as a Mental Health Issue

April 8, 2021
April 8, 2021

Even though many people think of the criminal and illegal aspects of the opioid epidemic, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reminds us that “Many people who are addicted to drugs are also diagnosed with other mental disorders, including anxiety and depression. Some people develop mental health problems related to their compulsive drug use, and some people take drugs in an attempt to alleviate symptoms of mental health disorders. Whatever symptoms appear first, it is important to treat all mental illnesses at the same time.” Even worse, the past year of the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated many health issues that contribute further to the opioid addiction crisis.

The Potential Link Between Opioid Abuse and Some Suicides

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “While we don’t know exactly how many opioid overdose deaths are actually suicides, some experts estimate that up to 30% of opioid overdoses may fit this description. The connection between opioid overdose and suicide has appeared to increase over time, with one 2017 analysis of National Vital Statistics data showing significant increases in suicides involving opioids among all age groups except teens and young adults between 1999 and 2014; in those aged 55-64, the rate quadrupled.”

Psychiatric Disorders and Opioid Abuse

Opioid addiction goes hand in hand with affliction by other mental health problems. The NIH offers that “People with substance use disorders also frequently have other psychiatric disorders—for example, they are twice as likely to have mood and anxiety disorders, which are independently associated with increased suicide risk. The reverse is also true. Half of all individuals with a mental illness will—at some point in their life—have a substance use disorder. Moreover, mental illnesses are also associated with accidental overdoses of medications and illicit drugs.” Healthline adds that “About 16 percent of Americans have mental health disorders, yet they receive more than half of all opioid prescriptions. People with mood and anxiety disorders are twice as likely to use these drugs than people without mental health problems.” Even worse, the same source tells us that “They’re also more than three times as likely to misuse opioids.”

Treatment for the Mental Health Aspects of Opioid Addiction

UCLA Health describes how typical treatment for opiate addiction starts necessarily with detox, to gradually wean a patient off opiates under the clinical supervision of healthcare staff learned in responding to various symptoms of withdrawal. UCLA reminds readers that “opiate dependence (especially on heroin) can be too much for many patients to cope with in the short period of time (e.g., days) commonly allotted to detox.” As part of their recovery process, patients with addiction may  require substitution therapy with a less debilitating opioid for the drug that caused the addiction. The hope is that a patient reaches full detox eventually so that “rehabilitation (either residential or out-patient) begins. It is important that the program a recovering opiate addict selects also treat any other mental health conditions simultaneously.”

Long Term Mental Healthcare Support to Maintain Recovery

Patients in recovery from opioid addiction need significant support to maintain their hard-won progress against this affliction. Acknowledging the complexity and uniqueness of every addiction, the American Psychiatric Association Different suggests an individualized approach to supporting long-term recovery success. They write, “Levels of treatment may be needed by different individual or at different times – outpatient counseling, intensive outpatient treatment, inpatient treatment, or long-term therapeutic communities. Opioid use disorder often requires continuing care to be effective. Evidence-based care for opioid use disorder involves several components, including:

  • Personalized diagnosis and treatment planning tailored to the individual and family
  • Long-term management – Addiction is a chronic condition with the potential for both recovery and recurrence. Long-term outpatient care is important.
  • Access to FDA-approved medications
  • Effective behavioral interventions delivered by trained professionals
  • Coordinated care for addiction and other conditions
  • Recovery support services, such as mutual aid groups, peer support specialists, and community services.”

Compliance plays an important part in every healthcare providers interactions with patients and opioid therapy. HealthStream offers compliance-oriented training for opioid stewardship from our partner, NQF. Learn more by searching for NQF in our online store.