The opioid epidemic is not gone. All over the country, hundreds of thousands of Americans are still struggling with addiction to opioids and the need for inpatient treatment in Colorado is higher than ever. What has changed, is that more people are now paying attention than ever before. With the increase in awareness and action, come strides in change and progress.
Colorado has long since been one of the more progressive U.S. states – and in recent news, they have started treating the opioid epidemic like any other disease – with early treatment and medication assistance.
Then and Now
Emergency rooms, EMTs, and police have, for as long as the opioid epidemic has been around, treated addicts much the same way. If someone has overdosed or ended up in the emergency room, they would be hit with Narcan and sent on their way once revived.
Obviously, this doesn’t do very much in the way of long term recovery or even abstinence, as many of these individuals just go right back out for more. This helped fuel the vicious cycle. Addicts would fall out, get revived if they’re lucky, and then be left jonesing for more.
What some Colorado hospitals have started to implement will hopefully stop that train of events in its tracks by providing addicts not only with another chance at life but with a routine of abstinence forcing medication.
Medication-assisted treatment is already being used in dozens if not hundreds of substance abuse rehab centers around the country. These drugs were designed to help people stop and stop for good.
Here is how it works:
- Opioids function by binding to the GABA receptors in the brain
- MAT drugs block those receptors from being able to receive the opioids
- Cravings are reduced
- The effect of the opioids is null
- If a person tries to use opioids, they will immediately go into brutal withdrawal sensations
How it Works in Colorado
Where before, opioid and opiate users would be sent back out once they were coherent, patients are now given the opportunity to participate in a treatment program for their addiction. This is extremely helpful as many people who struggle with addiction of any type are unable to receive inpatient substance abuse treatment due to high costs and lack of insurance.
So, when someone who comes in due to an overdose or is struggling with their opioid addiction comes into these hospitals looking for help, they are given an opioid addiction screen, and are asked if they want to try the MAT program.
If they agree, they are referred to a clinical program that prescribes them with a long term treatment program for their addiction. They are given access to mental health professionals if they so choose, which can be crucial to understanding some of the root causes of why addicts continue to behave in dangerous behavior patterns and using.
Since starting the program in 2019, Colorado has seen dramatic results.
- In the first 6 months, hospitals brought in 267 patients
- Throughout the first year, that number rose to 307
- The number of patients who stayed more than 60 days rose from 34% to 60% in the first year
- 37% of 150 patients brought forth by the University of Colorado Hospital continued on with treatment in the program
Hospitals around the state have started to offer this program structure in their facilities, and all so far have seen positive results.
Lisa Gawenus, the director of outpatient behavioral health services at Denver Health, explained the drive for the program by saying, “I believe, fundamentally, that a person in the throes of addiction wants to become well, and an exposure to a (medication-assisted treatment) is that first step into recovery.”
Coming from the perspective of abstinence and recovery, medication-assisted treatment can tend towards problematic results. There is a debate in the recovery world around the necessity of these drugs, for a multitude of reasons.
- The drugs can be and are often abused
- The drugs are highly addictive
- Taking the drugs goes against the idea of truly getting clean and sober
- The drugs reinforce the idea that taking a pill will make you feel better
While yes, these drugs have absolutely saved thousands of lives, the problem centers around the fact that Suboxone and Methadone are ripe for abuse, cause addiction, and are extremely difficult to stop using.
Methadone has been the go-to for opioid addiction since the 60’s – and thousands of people who were once addicted to heroin found that they became even more addicted to the drug that was supposed to save them, Methadone.
This is because methadone is cheap, readily available, legal, and excruciating to withdrawal from. Where the heroin and opioid withdrawal takes anywhere from 3-8 days, the methadone withdrawal can take months. Users often report feeling like their bones are breaking, they have extreme nausea, migraines, diarrhea, and chest pains. Long story short, it can be like a 3-month long flu.
Suboxone can be eaten, smoked, and injected, and can create a feeling very similar to the one that heroin provides, although not as intense. It is addictive, and since it is considered to be the “cure” for opioid addiction, many people just switch over to it as it is more “acceptable”.
What Could Make the Difference
Apart from only providing Suboxone and Methadone, hospitals in Colorado are offering mental health services. This is huge. They are also exploring other avenues that often go unresearched, such as housing, education opportunities, relationships. and financial situations of the addicts in their programs.
Many programs are also gearing up towards battling the next great epidemic in their state, Methamphetamine. Meth is rapidly becoming one of the most widely abused drugs in the state. It is cheap, provides users with a relatively long high, and is extremely addictive.
If these programs continue to expand their research to the “whole-life” approach, the mental, physical, societal, and emotional needs of their patients, they might just be able to turn the tide against the drug epidemics in the state.