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According to a new piece of research, almost one in every five Americans – 70 million of us – use mind-altering drugs. Even if these numbers are slightly exaggerated, it still highlights the fact that the country is undergoing an epidemic of both illegal narcotic use and prescription drug abuse. The number of drug-related deaths has increased and the number of people who receive high-strength substances from their doctors is higher than it has ever been. What is going on here?
Diving into the Numbers
According to research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the main contributors to our issues are not cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine. According to their research, it is the over-the-counter and prescription medication such as anxiety relief drugs, sleeping pills and anti-depressants that we have to worry about.
The latest statistics place the number of unintentional drug overdose deaths throughout the nation at approximately 27,000, this means a single death every 19 minutes. By the time you are done reading this article, one more death may have occurred because of an unintentional drug overdose.
The largest contributing factor to these fatal overdoses comes from opioid analgesics. Opioid analgesic prescriptions are expected to drive the number of deaths even higher in the near future. These include drugs like morphine, oxycodone, hydromorphone and hydrocodone.
Problems with Overmedication
The field of medicine is continuously moving forward, always developing and advancing. Researchers are constantly coming up with better and more innovative cures and treatments to deal with the large selection of medical problems that humans experience. Our life expectancies are longer than ever despite the fact that we have no immediate cures for AIDS and cancer. People that suffer from countless diseases and conditions have significantly reduced their pain.
In fact, we have a medication for just about everything. If we do not have a medication that is capable of curing the actual medical problem, we will have something that may be able to treat the symptoms caused by the issue. Pharmaceutical companies have become influential factors that bring in billions of dollars in profit every year to produce what every American needs or wants.
Despite the fact that such a large percentage of Americans take prescription medication, we have to look at the aforementioned facts and realize that our lives may not have improved as much as we think they have because of these drugs.
Depression as an Example
One of the most commonly prescribed types of medication is the antidepressant. More than ten percent of Americans take an antidepressant. Women are more likely to take antidepressants than men are, and estimates place the number of women who take antidepressants at almost one in four – 25 percent of the female population. Despite the fact that this has become ‘normal’ in the last decade, the number of prescribed antidepressants doubled, between 1996 and 2005. Every year since 2005, it has continued to rise.
We have to ask ourselves, is ten percent of the American population really suffering from depression? Have our lives changed so dramatically since Bill Clinton’s first term came to an end? Did we have that many people become depressed in a few short years? For most people, the evidence points to overmedication. Pharmaceutical companies and physicians are telling people that the one answer to feelings of sadness is antidepressants. Most people would argue that this push is motivated solely by profit. Antidepressants are just one example, because we could make the same case for many other types of medication.
Signs that a Nation is being Over-Medicated
It is easy to make a case for the fact that as a nation, we are being overmedicated. Most of the new medications that have hit the market between 1995 and 2004 are nothing more than copycat alternatives to medication that is already available. Most of the drug companies have consistently slashed their budgets for research and development while increasing their marketing budget by 200 percent.
Another field of medicine that has exploded (with disastrous consequences) is prescription narcotics being prescribed by outpatient doctors. Again, this is often driven by pharmaceutical companies that sell these drugs. The number of opioid analgesics that are prescribed has quadrupled between 1999 and 2010.
We only make up about five percent of the world’s population, but we take in 99 percent of the world’s hydrocodone. We also take in 80 percent of the world’s oxycodone and 65 percent of the hydromorphone. Are we a nation that is in constant pain or has it become too easy to receive a prescription for these types of medication?
In fact, are we really helping people? Despite the fact that doctors may argue that reducing pain is a good thing, studies show that patients who receive narcotics for chronic pain are less likely to recover. They are also more likely to stay at home rather than return to work. It may even lead to hyperalgesia – meaning, becoming MORE sensitive to pain.
Perhaps more frustrating is that it is impossible to eliminate pain in all patients reliably. These strong opioid medications are no exception. We do not have enough evidence to suggest that these medications can help with managing chronic, non-cancer pain, because the majority of studies done on prescription narcotics only last between 12 and 16 weeks. One thing we do know, as the number of prescriptions of these medications increased, so did the number of deaths attributed to opioid-analgesic overdoses.
The Problem is Normalization
The truth is that we have problems with ‘easy accessibility’ to drugs in our country. We do not want to presume that not having prescription medication would somehow make this a healthier and safer country, but the truth is that if we continuously hammer home the fact that ‘this drug is good and that drug is good,’ eventually people are going to take a more tolerant attitude towards substance abuse. We have normalized the behavior and the increased dosages mean that more and more people have immediate access to it. Most teenagers would never think of snorting a line of cocaine to study for a test, but they will not think twice about taking a friend’s Adderall.
The truth is that there is no immediate solution to the problem. It was a problem that started gradually and will probably take years to fix. But until we address the issue itself and realize how bad it has gotten, nothing is going to change.