More people understand addiction now, but many still don’t

By KATHY MILES

Boyle County ASAP

The face of addiction has changed, and many Americans don’t understand it. Twenty years ago, if you had asked a central Kentucky resident their view of a person addicted to heroin, they would have probably listed the following: a resident of a large city; poor; weak will power; not religious; maybe homeless; and incapable of positive change. They would have also probably said that it was not a small town Kentucky problem and didn’t require much local understanding or attention.  

Today, a local survey on the streets of Danville would probably produce different results. A lot of local citizens know that we share the nation’s crisis with addiction, and they know that addiction to opioids — including heroin — has not left our community alone. Most people know someone who has struggled with addiction, and many know a local family who has lost a loved one to a drug overdose.

Because of massive amounts of media coverage, many people recognize now that a person with an addiction can be someone who has used alcohol only; someone who began the addiction process by using a legally prescribed opioid medication by their physician; or an illegal drug user. A local survey today would most likely show a mixture of improved understanding and continued ignorance of the underlying causes of addiction and the good news of recovery.  

New studies indicate that far too many Americans still don’t know how to recognize substance abuse and mental health problems, and don’t know how to direct people to appropriate help. A recent Kentucky Health Issues Poll, as reported in Kentucky Health News, found that of those polled, almost half knew someone who was seriously depressed, but only 70 percent of those polled knew where to tell people to get help for the depression. Older adults and young adults were the least likely to know about available treatment resources.

A newly released national survey, conducted by Michigan State University, studied people’s understanding of four major mental health and substance abuse issues troubling our country: anxiety, depression, alcohol abuse and prescription drug abuse. Sixty-three percent of the 4,600 people surveyed were able to recognize three common symptoms of alcohol abuse:  spending more and more time obtaining and drinking alcohol; failing to fulfill work or other life obligations because of alcohol misuse; and continued use of alcohol in spite of negative consequences. Men were less likely than women to recognize the signs of alcohol abuse, and interestingly, people from higher income households were less likely to recognize the need for treatment for alcohol abuse than people from lower income households.

Given the current opioid addiction crisis, the findings of the study related to prescription drug misuse are interesting. Sixty-eight percent of people surveyed recognized the following common symptoms of prescription drug abuse:  taking higher doses than prescribed, excessive mood swings, changes in sleeping patterns, poor decision making and seeking prescriptions from more than one health care provider.

Of course, that leaves 32 percent who did not recognize those warning signs. Men were slightly less likely than women surveyed to correctly identify the red flags, and persons from households with annual incomes above $75,000 were less knowledgeable than those with lower incomes.

Unfortunately, a lot of those surveyed recommended only self-help strategies to those with prescription drug abuse symptoms. And many indicated inaccurate and stigmatizing views of addiction, which are known to contribute to people not seeking help.

What does this say to us locally, as we continue to address short- and long-term solutions to our local substance misuse and addiction issues?  

First, we must not forget alcohol abuse and addiction in the almost frenzied current focus on the opioid crisis. People have suffered from alcohol addiction for centuries. They still are, and they still need help with resources for treatment and recovery as much as those suffering from drug addiction.

Secondly, we have to help more people of all ages learn the signs of a mental health or substance abuse problem. We teach our young people how to drive and how to write college admissions essays. We surely can teach them how to recognize depression, a treatable but potentially fatal disease. We educate our older adults on the signs of a stroke or heart attack. We can better publicize that legal medications can result in dependency, and that drug overdose deaths can happen to them.

Finally, we can and must do a better job of educating everyone in our community about resources for help.  We want future surveys to reflect that 100 percent of our citizens know where to turn for help.

Here’s a start for your area resource list: Bluegrass.org (formerly known as Comprehensive Care Center) operates a 24/7 crisis line for mental health and substance abuse problems at (800) 928-8000. The local Bluegrass.org clinic number is (859) 236-2726.

United Way of the Bluegrass operates a crisis and referral help line for a variety of problems for people in the Bluegrass region. That number is 2-1-1.

The national Suicide Prevention 24/7 crisis line is (800) 273-TALK (8255).  Of course, in an immediate, potentially life threatening emergency, call 911.

Kathy L. Miles is coordinator for the Boyle County Agency for Substance Abuse Policy Inc.