Underlying Social Issues May Be Fueling The Opioid Epidemic

By Beth Leipholtz 09/24/18

“If we solve the [opioid] sub-epidemic, will there be another sub-epidemic that comes on its heels?” asks one expert.

sad man sitting against a wall

A new study has affirmed that there are underlying social issues when it comes to the opioid epidemic.

The study, published Thursday (Sept. 20) in the journal Science, determined that drug overdose deaths have been increasing since 1979, well before opioid abuse began climbing in the 1990s. 

According to researchers from the University of Pittsburgh, this could mean that rising overdose deaths are actually connected to “larger societal problems like alienated communities and an increasingly disaffected population.”

During the study, researchers examined data from about 600,000 deaths categorized as drug overdoses from the National Vital Statistics System. In doing so, they discovered that the overdose deaths “followed an almost perfectly exponential trajectory” from 1979 to 2016.

Researchers found that the overdose deaths doubled about every nine years, and that by 2016 it had increased to one death every eight minutes.

“This smooth, exponential growth pattern caught us by surprise,” Dr. Donald S. Burke, senior author and dean of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, told ABC News. “It can be hard to grasp what exponential growth really means, but you can think of it as a nuclear explosion: you start with 2 [deaths due to drug overdose], then 4, then 8, then 16, and so on.”

Though the increase in overdose deaths was consistent, researchers did not find that there was any similar predictability when determining deaths from a specific drug.

By utilizing a method called heat-mapping, researchers were able to plot overdose patterns across the country and found that while certain drugs were more prominent in certain areas, nearly every region showed an overdose “hotspot” for at least one drug.

In doing so, the researchers came to the conclusion that overdose deaths have continued to increase even though the use of individual drugs has fluctuated over time.

“It implies that there are other forces at work, besides the specific drugs,” Burke told ABC News. “The forces are broader and deeper than we thought, including social determinants of health and technological determinants of health.”

Burke further explains, “The drugs have become cheaper over the years and their delivery systems have become more efficient… These factors increase drug availability. People are losing a sense of purpose in their lives and there has been dissolution of communities, making people more susceptible to using drugs—increasing demand.”

While Burke agrees that treatment programs and availability of the overdose antidote naloxone are helpful for individuals, he worries that not enough is being done to address the underlying issues. 

“If we solve the [opioid] sub-epidemic, will there be another sub-epidemic that comes on its heels?” Burke said. “If we don’t address the social determinants of health that underlie drug use and addiction, there’s a good possibility that the drug overdoses will start to emerge again.”

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Beth is a Minnesota girl who got sober at age 20. By day she is a website designer, and in her spare time she enjoys writing about recovery at www.lifetobecontinued.com, doing graphic design and spending time with her boyfriend and three dogs. Find Beth on LinkedInInstagram and Twitter.