Virginia, like the rest of the country, has an opioid problem.  I participated in a conference hosted by Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington, led by Bishop Burbidge, over the weekend to discuss just how much of a problem, and why it’s a big deal.

Most people, when they hear “opioid addiction” tend to think street drugs – heroin and opium.  But one of the main problems are prescription opioid painkillers.  I’ve talked to a lot of doctors about this recently, and they agree that until about five years ago, the medical community didn’t realize just how addictive opioid painkillers (things like oxycodone and codeine) can be.  Let me give you some stats on prescription opioids…

·         1 in 5 people develops an increased risk of opioid addiction after just 10 days of being on a opioid prescription.

·         20% to 30% of people with opioid prescriptions for chronic pain misuse them.

·         80% of people who use heroin first misused a prescription opioid.

·         In 2016, 11.5 million Americans aged 12 and older misused a prescription pain medication.

With opioids, it’s not just the addiction that’s the problem – though that in itself can be devastating to individuals and families.  At high enough doses, opioids can be lethal – causing a dangerous drop in heart rate and breathing.  This has increased as synthetic opioids like fentanyl have started to become more prevalent.  Fentanyl, basically a super opioid, is highly lethal, and is used by gangs to cut heroin because it makes the drug stronger, but also cheaper to produce since fentanyl is inexpensive to make.

So why am I writing this, on my otherwise family friendly blog?  Because the one long term study that looked at successfully preventing the abuse of prescription meds involved strengthening families during or before children are in junior high.

This is not just a street drug issue.  This is not just a poor family or rough neighborhood issue.  With legally obtained prescription opioids being the gateway, this is an issue that impacts middle and upper middle class families just as much as those financially struggling.  And the problems are starting at a young age.

Based on the research, kids as young as 12 are getting their hands on pills that they should not have.  As parents, we need to do a couple of things:

1)      Medication management.  Don’t keep old prescriptions around the house.  If you have a legally obtained painkiller, use it as your doctor directs and then get rid of it if there is any extra.

2)      Build relationships.  We need to be able to have serious conversations with our kids.  And rather than think this means that we, as parents, need to talk to (or at) our kids more, it really means that we need to build relationships where our kids feel comfortable enough to come and share their serious concerns with us.  If our kids think we can’t (or won’t) hear them, how can they ask us for help?

We need to respond better as a community to the reality of the opioid crisis.  This means first responding better at home.