The Opioid Crisis: On March 29 of this year, President Trump issued an executive order establishing the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. On the same day, in a public conversation with the president and members of his administration, a recovered drug addict from New Jersey, Vanessa Vitolo, explained that recovery from the physical symptoms of addiction was only the beginning of her journey to recovery.
Shortly after college, Vanessa suffered an injury. She was prescribed Percocet, an opioid painkiller, but quickly graduated to heroin because it was “more accessible and so much cheaper.” Vanessa soon found herself homeless—her mother would “drive the streets of Atlantic City begging people to find [her]”—until a drug court in New Jersey sent her to long-term treatment.
Once she arrived in treatment, Vanessa expected that recovery from the physical symptoms of her addiction would be “the hardest part.” Little did she know that “a couple of months later, comes the psychological aspect of it.” Vanessa did recover, but her recovery required that she not only fight through the withdrawal, and the physical cravings—she also had to find “hope.”
Unfortunately, the Interim Report released by the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis appears not to have heard, or not to have heeded, what Vanessa and countless other recovered addicts have told them: addiction is not merely a physical disease. Although the report recommends expanded funding of treatment programs, which is a good start, it specifically recommends enhanced access to “Medication Assisted Treatment.”
To be clear, medication-assisted treatment is not a bad thing. For those addicted to opioids (painkillers, heroin, etc.), alcohol, or benzodiazepenes (Xanax, etc.), medication can very much assist with the early days of recovery by helping to assuage often-overwhelming withdrawal symptoms and physical cravings.
But medication is not a silver bullet. Medication is not hope. Medication that targets physical symptoms cannot cure psychological maladies, and no medication can resolve spiritual maladies. The Commission’s interim report encourages the National Institute of Health to work with the pharmaceutical industry (notably, the primary bad actor in facilitating the prescription opioid epidemic) to develop additional “options” for medication-assisted treatment. But nowhere in the report does the Commission encourage the president to fund or encourage longer-term treatment. It recommends further education for children regarding the dangers of drugs, but nowhere does it recommend education regarding psychological and spiritual health.
Sadly, the report appears to be more of the same: an attempt to throw band-aids on bullet wounds. In the absence of a serious conversation in this country, backed up by well-funded efforts to educate our children not only about the dangers of individual behaviors but also about the dangers of an uncared-for psyche, we cannot make serious headway in combating addiction.