This Friday, people around the world will light a candle, share a story, and gather together to honor those who have lost their lives to addiction. It's International Overdose Awareness Day, created in Australia in 2001, and expanding since then to 500 events held across the globe last year.
Doctors continue to study the link between mental illness and addiction. Dr. Ted Park, a psychiatrist specializing in addiction medicine at Boston Medical Center says, "there absolutely is a link". No matter which one starts first, there is a chance the other could develop. For instance, Dr. Park says "you can imagine if you have an anxiety problem or a depression problem, one of the things you might turn to, to help self medicate that problem, is drugs or alcohol. Vice versa, If you developed a drug problem, part of developing a drug problem involves losing a lot of things that are important to you, like your family and other relationships. If you're further down that road where you've lost a lot of important things in your life then you can become depressed, you can become anxious."
Nearly 45 million adults in America battled a mental illness in 2016, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. At the same time, more than 20 million people over the age of 12 fought a substance abuse disorder. And an estimated 8.2 million adults were diagnosed with both a mental illness and a substance abuse disorder.
Dr. Park says the millions of patients facing this dual diagnosis tend to have worse outcomes. "They're the most at risk in terms of, even if you treat the addiction problems they're always at risk of relapse, because their ongoing mental health problems cause them to want to go use drugs or substances. And until we can adequately treat those mental health problems, it's going to be harder for people to get better in the long run."
He believes the trend in treating these patients is by integrating care whenever possible. "If you can deal with all the issues that a patient is having under one roof, then you're more likely to have a better outcome." There haven't been many studies that have shown that specifically, but he says there's some hints of positive results there. "If you treat someone's medical problems, mental health problems, and addiction problems together, then you're more likely to get a better outcome."
Part of the challenge has been the history of treating addiction. Dr. Park says for a long time addiction wasn't even treated as a medical problem. "When you have a history like that where a lot of patients with addiction problems were just sent to jail, then you can imagine it takes some time to integrate that care into the rest of the medical system."
But, he says things are changing. More medical doctors are wanting to specialize in the field of addiction. He says it was just recently awarded a specialty within medicine, whereas before, traditionally psychiatry treated addiction. "By opening this up to more medical doctors you potentially can transform how addiction is treated. It's going to benefit patients in the end and potentially revolutionize the field."
It's no secret cities and towns around the world are dealing with an opioid epidemic right now. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says s killed more than 42,000 people in 2016, more than any year on record. On average, 115 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose. But Dr. Park says there is hope, and they are creating the tools to bring those numbers down. He says "there's a substantial group of patients I take care of who are doing great. They're taking these medicines, and they're able to live their lives again, they're transforming themselves. We think of addiction as this horrible, destructive illness, but people are able to recover from this, and are able to get back to where they were before the illness."
Words of encouragement as millions around the world look to a day when International Overdose Awareness is no longer needed. Until then, you can find a vigil, roundtable discussion, fundraising event, or information stand planned on August 31st at www.overdoseday.com.
Kim Lucey is a freelance journalist with more than a decade of experience in the field. Her career has included coverage of big breaking news events like the Sandy Hook school shooting, lockdown in Watertown, MA following the Boston marathon bombings, and Superstorm Sandy. Her in-depth reports have garnered awards, including a focus on treating mental health issues in children. Currently, she is a reporter at a television station covering the news across the Greater Boston Area with an appreciation for fact-finding and storytelling. Follow Kim on Facebook and Twitter.