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The Opioid Epidemic: A Personal Perspective

Opioid related overdoses have killed more Americans than the Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam wars combined. The statistics surrounding the opioid epidemic are absolutely staggering and the health and science journal STAT predicts opioid overdoses will claim more than 650,000 lives in the next ten years. This epidemic continues to destroy and end lives, veterans and civilians alike. Veterans are twice as likely as civilians to die from accidental opioid related deaths which may be explained by higher rates of chronic pain from service-related physical injuries as well as the impact of emotional and psychological injuries sustained while in service.

For some veterans, the lack of effective available pain management alternatives, such as medical cannabis, prevents avoiding or ceasing opioid use before addiction sets in. Initiating empowerment of veterans who want to utilize cannabis is a priority among IAVA’s Big 6 Advocacy Priorities for 2018, along with combating suicide, support for women veterans, reforming the VA, recognizing burn pits and other toxic exposures and defending the GI Bill. Medical cannabis can provide effective relief from injuries sustained, without the adverse side effects of opioids, including addiction and death. For veterans and civilians alike, there are several studies showing that the use of medical cannabis can lead to fewer opioid related overdoses and deaths, providing a viable option to help fight the deadly opioid epidemic.

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IAVA’s Rapid Response Referral Program (RRRP), which provides guidance, support and linkages to effective on the ground resources and support, works with veterans across the country struggling with transition related challenges, including opioid addiction, which is often matched with a mental health challenge or physical injury. Opioids are easily abused because of their intensely addicting nature and quality treatment and support are clear pathways toward recovery. RRRP’s Veteran Transition Managers (VTMs) effectively link veterans with treatment options and community support to ensure access to quality care for this dangerous and powerful addiction.

In addition to what I’ve learned as a Veteran Transition Manager (VTM) for RRRP and in my career working with veterans and civilians in residential treatment facilities, outpatient, wellness, and vocational programs, and the NYC Department of Education, I also have my own story to tell about the opioid epidemic and the destructive impact it has had on my own family. My only brother died of an opioid overdose and my husband, an Army veteran, battled with heroin addiction for nearly 10 years before finding his footing in a life of recovery.

My husband’s addiction began in his early 20s. When he recounts how it began, he can vividly remember taking his first opiate pill. For the first time in a long time or perhaps forever, he had a sense of ease, peace and euphoria and all of his problems, concerns, anxieties and stress softly melted away. His drug use quickly and rapidly escalated. Before he had time to understand the dangers of the drugs he was taking recreationally, he was addicted. Pills swiftly moved to heroin and heroin swiftly destroyed his life. He went from having his whole life ahead of him with limitless opportunities to becoming unemployed, homeless, without community or support and with little to no sense of hope, self-esteem or a belief that there was a positive future ahead of him. His addiction was so strong to this drug that he lost everything to it. And after being stripped of any sense of purpose or happiness, he wanted to stop but he couldn’t stop. Even after surviving four overdoses that nearly killed him, the power of heroin wrangled reason and hope from him and he was still driven to use. Biochemically, opioid addiction is fueled by the same part of the brain as basic survival — dominating our human needs like water and food. That is the power of opiates. They take hold of people and oftentimes, they don’t realize it until it’s too late.

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The simple fact that my husband is a veteran meant that he had fairly seamless access to treatment and ongoing support through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). However, having access to treatment isn’t necessarily a magic fix for those suffering from addiction. My husband went to four different inpatient VA treatment facilities on nearly 10 different occasions over the span of four years. He achieved sobriety at various points along the way but always found himself back with the needle getting high and continually landed himself back in treatment. There were times in the throws of his addiction and in between treatment that he went to the VA and was actually prescribed opiates, even though the VA had provided him treatment for addiction from this very drug. Not unsurprising, he soon found himself involved with the criminal justice system.

Once my husband’s addiction progressed to the point that he began to get arrested, the Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court intervened, which for him, looking back, played a pivotal role in beginning his long, painful journey toward a life in recovery. Veterans Treatment Courts (VTCs) are set up to provide specialized support and resources for veterans involved with the criminal justice system, rather than punishment, and are modeled after mental health and drug courts. The very first VTC was established in 2008 by Judge Russell in Buffalo, NY, the same court that my husband attended. IAVA has had the honor to work closely with Judge Russell’s court and has collaborated with five other VTCs across the country, ensuring that RRRP clients have access to this unique and effective program. Judge Russell’s court was instrumental in providing my husband with the support that he needed to begin to recover from his heroin addiction, in part because there was a high level of accountability, military cultural competencies and a commitment to stick with him until he was able to gain the confidence and skills to begin to change his life.

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Although my brother’s primary challenge was not addiction, he still ended up succumbing to death by way of an opioid overdose. My brother had tremendous creativity and passion. He was a master wordsmith and gifted writer, an avid sports fan and incredible athlete, and a sense of humor, wit, and intelligence that were unmatched. His potential was truly limitless. But all of that began to slip away when bipolar disorder took over his life. When he started to show signs of mental illness in late adolescence, my parents did everything they could to help him. But their attempts proved to be futile and as time went on, my brother’s illness progressed and he got sicker and sicker. For many, the continuum of care in this country’s mental health system is feeble at best and despite my brother’s desire to get better and the support of his family, he didn’t get the help that he required and ultimately died in a desperate and exhausted attempt to manage his disease with drugs and alcohol, after being bounced around a fractured mental health system for over a decade.

For veterans and their families IAVA’s Rapid Response Referral Program (RRRP) provides the crucial and often missing link of ensuring that those who reach out to us never have to battle systems of care alone. Often times in my work as a Veteran Transition Manager (VTM), I think about my brother and am motivated by his memory to provide the highest quality of care for my clients. And I sometimes wonder if he had had access to a program like ours, to have a real advocate and someone to battle systems of care to ensure he received the services and support he needed and deserved, that perhaps his trajectory may have been altered. But that, I will never know.

What I do know is that there is hope and there is help out there for anyone struggling with addiction or mental illness. For veterans and their families IAVA’s Rapid Response Referral Program is standing by to assist. If you, or a veteran you know needs help reach out to us today. If you are a civilian and need help, reach out to Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) by accessing their 24/7 National Helpline, which is a free and confidential treatment referral and information service for individuals and families facing mental health and/or substance use challenges.
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