Growing Understanding of Addiction and Its Limits | Opinion
When it comes to how we deal with addiction, we’ve come a long way, but we still have a lot of work to do. We have come a long way because not so long ago the consensus verdict on those who suffered from addiction of one kind or another was that they were all criminals suffering from a certain type of character flaw or lack of willpower – as if the problem was all about moral failure.
But today, slowly, with the help of medical science, we are coming to a better understanding of how the brain works. It changes our understanding of addiction. There are still a good number of people who see people with addiction more as criminals than patients, but these perceptions are starting to change.
Another thing that has contributed to this development is the changing face of drug addiction, especially when it comes to opioids. It wasn’t that long ago that the heroin addiction stereotype was a minority person nodding on a park bench or doing heroin on a street in downtown Camden, Newark or South Philly. When it was the main face of drug addiction, we had a war on drugs, and treatment was not really seen as an option.
As the profile of drug addiction became more suburban, more rural, whiter and more bourgeois, society in general began to rethink the whole framework. The answer was less a prisoner-free war on drug distribution, and more a medical problem requiring treatment. We will take progress in any way we can, but the reality is we need more of this latest approach, including drug-assisted treatment – both residential and outpatient – with better access for all.
I say this because far too many people die from drug overdoses. Nationwide in 2019, there were 70,630 overdose deaths, including 3,021 in New Jersey. In Cumberland County that year, we lost 91 of our neighbors and family members. In 2020, there were 3,046 overdose deaths statewide, including 76 in Cumberland County. This year doesn’t appear to be improving, as we lost 540 in the first two months of 2021, with 10 of those overdose deaths in Cumberland County.
Thinking about the problem from a medical perspective, I’m not sure it’s as much about drugs as it is addictive behavior. We live in a time when people of all shapes, sizes, colors and backgrounds are addicted to a host of things like never before, be it food, gambling, sex or Facebook.
What medical science has shown us over the past decade is that the parts of the brain that light up in an addict are the same parts that light up when we are addicted to food, pornography, gambling and social media applications. This shouldn’t be overstated, but companies spend a lot of time and money precisely to make their products so “addictive” – even if not clinically addictive – that you can’t. not refuse them.
Whether it’s sugar in drinks, salt and fat in food, or certain sounds, colors and “rewards” in digital apps, everything is designed to make it transparent and compelling. This is why so many people sleep with their cell phones and why phones and similar devices are the first thing that catches their attention when they wake up. This is why about 42% of American adults today suffer from obesity, and why the incidence of type 2 diabetes is now 10.5%, which represents 34.2 million Americans. In 1958, only 1% of the population, or 500,000 people, was diagnosed with diabetes.
What sets drug addiction apart from most other forms of addiction that we face as a society are overdose deaths, and the speed and suddenness with which drugs can kill. What is needed, in addition to more research and better treatment options, is more compassion and understanding.
At 6 p.m. on August 31, the Cumberland County Department of Social Services will be holding its 5th Annual Overdose Awareness Candlelight Vigil at New Jersey Motorsports Park. It is an opportunity for those who are grieving to find comfort in the community, and for us to bear witness, and it is not nothing.
Albert B. Kelly is mayor of Bridgeton. Contact him by phone at 856-455-3230 Ext. 200.
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