Heroin is not just a Kentucky problem. Two national studies published this month by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) provided evidence that the heroin epidemic is deepening across the country. The problem cuts across occupational demographics, as well as—disturbingly—age demographics, affecting young adults in their 20s more and more.
Some clarification might be in order when we talk about a heroin “epidemic.” Heroin use still remains low when compared to other addictive substances, such as alcohol or prescription drugs. But it’s also true that more and more people are being affected by heroin abuse, which is leading to more overdoses and deaths, more cases of dependence, and more overwhelmed treatment facilities. And it’s certainly true that some pockets of the country, like Northern KY, have seen more virulent epidemics of heroin use than national trends indicate. The new reports reinforce the need to treat this issue seriously and aggressively.
A decade of a worsening heroin epidemic
The study by SAMHSA indicated that 681,000 people used heroin in 2013, as USA Today recently reported. That figure is significantly higher than in any year in the previous decade. The press release from SAMHSA added that out of those 681,000 people aged 12 and over, 169,000 people were first-time users of the deadly drug. The release noted that “on an average day about 460 Americans use heroin for the first time.”
While the number of adolescents/ teenagers who used heroin sometime over the last year has remained stable over the past 11 years (31,000 used heroin in 2013), the 18-26 and 26-and-older groups saw increases in the number using heroin.
More alarming perhaps than the rise in the number of people using heroin is the rise in the number of people abusing or dependent on the drug (that is, with a substance use disorder or addiction). Of the 6.9 million people classified as having a substance use disorder in 2013, there were 517,000 people whose disorder was based on heroin use. According to the SAMHSA report, that’s more than twice the number of people with a heroin disorder in 2002.
Other findings: heroin leads to addiction more often, treatment facilities overwhelmed
Beyond the headlines, there are more disturbing findings. SAMHSA found the majority of people classified with a heroin use disorder also qualified for heroin dependence, or full-scale addiction. Simply put, people who use or abuse heroin are much more likely to become addicted to it than those who use other drugs.
Another finding was that the number of people who received some form of treatment for a heroin disorder also nearly doubled from 2002-2013. That might appear to be some good news from the study, but the implications are cause for more concern. More people receiving treatment has led to overwhelmed treatment facilities. Especially in the pockets of the country hit the hardest by the heroin scourge, treatment centers can’t accommodate the number of people seeking treatment. According to the report, nearly half of outpatient facilities treating heroin disorders were operating at or even over capacity in 2013.
One in 10 workers suffered from substance abuse
In a different study published this month, the federal researchers at SAMHSA looked at the problem of substance abuse from a different angle: the reach of substance use disorders into careers and occupations. SAMHSA reported that almost 10 percent of full-time U.S. workers experienced a problem with substance abuse in the last year. The report illustrates not only the extent of substance use problems in the country but also hints at the secondary effects to American productivity and the economy.
The researchers noted that employers and workers would both greatly benefit from SBIRT practices used in Employee Assistance Programs, in order to identify and treat substance use at an early stage. In this way people demonstrating signs of substance abuse or dependence could be referred to outpatient or residential treatment with minimal damage to their lives and careers.