We’ve all heard the phrase “Six Degrees of Separation.” The idea has spurred websites, books, plays and movie plots, but it’s actually based on the small world theory that states you’re connected to people through an average of six relationships with others. Originating back in the 1920s, the theory brings to light the common phrase “I know a friend who knows a friend…” and shows just how interconnected human relationships have become. In some instances, it can be fun to see how many “degrees” you are away from a celebrity, or the president, or the Pope.
But, step back and consider America’s opioid epidemic; suddenly the game takes a much darker turn.
2.7 million people battled a dependency or addiction to opioids in 2015. The following year, 59,000 people died from an overdose of opioids. Each day, 91 people die at the hands of the drug, or about 1 person every 15 minutes. With these statistics in mind, it’d be difficult to find someone who falls outside the “six relationship degrees” and who hasn’t been either directly or indirectly affected by the opioid crisis.
As I type this, I realize just how close I am to it myself. My cousin is my most direct link to the epidemic, having battled opioid addiction for a number of years. My co-worker’s boyfriend, the next degree of separation, passed away from an overdose. Add one more separation link, and I have my friend’s friend’s friend who likewise faced a prescription drug battle that morphed into a heroin dependency.
What exactly caused the crisis that has touched the lives of so many? We could analyze the factors that contributed to the rise of prescriptions and subsequent addictions and dependencies. But, these have been talked about. We know that Big Pharma heavily marketed painkillers in the mid-90s. We know doctors overprescribed through the encouragement from Big Pharma. We know pharmacies dispensed more than they should have. Finally, after years of letting the crisis build up to its epidemic status, steps are being taken to combat it.
But, could there be a greater issue at hand? Does America have an underlying cultural problem that fueled the country’s dependency and enabled the nation to consume 80% of the world’s opioid market?
The answer is deeply rooted in our society’s misunderstanding of mental health. There is a clear disconnect between wellness of the body and wellness of the mind, one that places the former ahead of the latter. Pain of the mind that comes in the form of mental illness can be subjective to each individual and isn’t always showcased through physical symptoms, making it very difficult for physicians to diagnose and tough for those who aren’t suffering to grasp the severity of the situation.
America’s view of mental health is one that combines two distinct stigmas to create an overall negative view of mental illness and the act of getting help. On one hand, there’s the presence of a social stigma, the discriminating behaviors against individuals dealing with a mental illness because of long-standing views that these people are dangerous and unpredictable. Add to this the self-stigma of mentally ill individuals who internalize feelings of shame and resist seeking out treatment. Because of these ignominies, less than half of all adults struggling with a mental health condition actively try to receive treatment, and yet this is the leading cause of disability in the country.
Now, compare the culture surrounding mental illness to that of opioid prescriptions. There are individuals choosing to not seek out treatment for mental health conditions, and yet doctors and Big Pharma fuel the act of over-prescribing for everything from chronic pain to post-surgery recovery.
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