When you think of the state of Connecticut, you typically associate it with the prestigious Ivy League school Yale or maybe it being the birthplace of the hamburger, not a growing number of drug overdoses.
It isn’t new that America is in the midst of a drug epidemic, causing many states to pass new laws to try and curb the amount of drug users and deaths, but still that number grows. And one of the states most affected is Connecticut, but it’s hard to recognize exactly the cause.
Since 2013, Connecticut has seen a substantial growth in the amount of overdose deaths yearly. They have now surpassed the national average for opioid overdoses and deaths at 27.7 deaths per 100,000 people.
Those numbers have not slowed down either. In 2017 there were 1,038 deaths, a significant increase from the 357 in 2012.
These numbers have pushed Connecticut to number 11 in highest number of overdose deaths. And to make matters worse, Connecticut’s neighbors like New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Maine are among the top 10.
What are the Causes?
It has been suggested that we can trace the beginning of the prescription problem to the early 2000’s when there was an overemphasis on treating pain. Around that time, hospitals and health care facilities were instructed to include pain levels as a fifth vital sign.
Due to the desire to provide quality treatment, the number of prescriptions for pain killers rose. It was later realized that long-term use of this form of pain management was unsafe, leading to systems that monitor and track prescriptions to discourage doctors from over prescribing.
Another root of the cause is the lack of training in treating pain.
Nearly 80% of prescription opioids were prescribed by primary care doctors and not a pain specialist. While that may not seem like a problem, a 2011 study revealed that only 5 out of 133 medical schools offered any form of training on treatment of pain, meaning that your family doctor likely did not take a course in this area.
Due to the lack of pain treatment courses, the number of pain specialists are limited. Numbers are estimated at 4 pain doctors for every 100,000 people in pain. This leaves pain management in unqualified hands.
The lack of training causes over prescribing. A 30-day supply for something minor is unnecessary and many times leaves leftovers. Data showed that many people who used opioids recreationally got them from a friend or relative’s leftover prescription, not from their own prescriptions.
Other factors include the inability to predict who will abuse prescription medications. Data has shown that addiction affects all demographics, making it impossible for doctors to pinpoint exactly the type of patient who would be more likely to abuse the medications.
Another reason for the growth in deaths is the lack of prescription data. Like many other states, Connecticut has required prescribers to register with a prescription monitoring program. However, half did not do that and the half that did complained of a time-consuming and not use-friendly system.
These monitoring systems also do not include neighboring states, allowing people to access multiple prescriptions for doctors in numerous states also known as “doctor shopping.”
With the remedies to all these issues came another unforeseen problem in the form of heroin use.
Getting prescription opioids became more and more difficult with each regulation that was put in place, but the damage was already done. People were dependent on opioids and desperate to not face withdrawal.
This caused many to switch to heroin due to the availability and the cheaper price tag. Heroin overdoses doubled from 2012 to 2015.
What is Being Done to Stop It?
While it is apparent that some of the regulations are the cause in the rise of overdose deaths, the state cannot get discouraged and must continue to respond to this problem.
In 2008 we saw the somewhat unsuccessful implementation of the prescription monitoring program. Next in 2012, state law was changed to allow health care providers to prescribe naloxone, a drug that reverses overdoses and saves lives, to people who may witness an overdose, not just the people who may experience one.
While many first responders carry it, there are still many towns whose emergency officials are not carrying naloxone due to a bill that requires all towns emergency service plans to be updated to include the use of naloxone.
Passing of the “Good Samaritan” law and better prescribing practices also hope to curb the amount of overdose deaths.
Hope on the Horizon
The Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services reports a 150% increase in people accessing treatment. New contacts for residents seeking opioid treatment have also been announced.
Connecticut itself has various treatment centers, including Mountainside Rehab. Access to treatment is higher than ever before.
Access to naloxone is also being increased despite constantly facing budget cuts. Creative ways to fund the high demand for the lifesaving drug are being thought up, such as taking 10% of drug related civil forfeitures or taxing pharmaceutical companies. Access to the drug does not cure but it does give people hope to recover.
Better data is being collected to help those who need treatment, as well as information on where families of addicts can obtain naloxone.
Even with the passing of legislation that allowed family members of those at risk of overdose to obtain naloxone, there is still hesitation from the families to get the prescriptions due to the stigma that addiction carries.
In response, there has been an increase in trainings on harm reduction, reversing overdoses, addictions, and administering naloxone. This hopes to reduce the stigma.
While there are no cut and dry answers of how and why we ended up in this epidemic, one thing is obvious: it is not going away any time soon.
Ignoring the problem will only make things worse. We, as a society, must recognize those struggling with addiction as the people they are and have compassion. As statistics have shown, addiction and overdose deaths can affect anyone.