Michigan’s opioid epidemic continues to increase as pandemic drags on

HOUGHTON — Michigan has been cited as ranking eighth among states in the nation for drug abuse, according to a report released Wednesday by the personal finance website WalletHub.

The study found that the drug problem across the nation is exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. There were over 88,000 drug overdose deaths in 2020, up around 27% from the previous year.

Researchers studied all 50 states. Their findings for Michigan are stated as:

Drug Abuse & Prevention in Michigan (1=Biggest Problem; 25=Avg.):

– 16th – Share of teenagers who used illicit drugs in the past month.

– 13th – Share of adults who used illicit drugs in the past month.

– 13th – Opioid pain reliever prescriptions per 100 people.

– 21st – Drug overdose deaths per capita.

– 11th – Substance abuse treatment facilities per 100,000 people (Age 12+) using illicit drugs.

In order to determine which states have the biggest drug problems, WalletHub compared the 50 states and the District of Columbia in three overall categories: 1) Drug Use & Addiction, 2) Law Enforcement and 3) Drug Health Issues & Rehab.

Those categories include a total of 21 relevant metrics, which are listed on the website with their corresponding weights. Each metric was graded on a 100-point scale, with a score of 100 representing the biggest drug problem.

Researchers then determined each state and the district’s weighted average across all metrics to calculate its overall score. This total score was the basis for the final ranking. So the state ranked 1st in this study has the biggest drug problem, based on the data at hand, while the state ranked 51st has the smallest drug problem.

While the study reviewed the latest data, the drug abuse problem and its increase during the pandemic is not new.

On Aug. 8, 2020, the University of Michigan (UofM) published a question and answer article, written by Laura Bailey, titled “COVID poses hardships for people with substance abuse problems.”

Bailey wrote that both fatal and nonfatal overdoses had increased that year compared to last, according to a recent report by the Overdose Data Mapping Application Program. And, she added, anecdotal information suggests that compared to last year (2019), people in recovery were relapsing at alarming rates.

For the report, faculty from the University of Michigan School of Nursing’s Center for the Study of Drugs, Alcohol, Smoking and Health (DASH) discussed why the pandemic had hit people with substance abuse problems especially hard and the expanded role of virtual recovery programs.

When asked if, and why, overdoses and fatal overdoses were increasing, Terri Voepel-Lewis, associate professor who researches youth and risky prescription opiate decisions, said that the pandemic has not only negatively impacted mental health, but has also affected the ability (and likely the desire) of people to seek routine health care. Given stay-at-home orders and fears of going to the doctor or emergency room, people may have become more likely to self-treat problems like pain or anxiety with borrowed prescription medication or illicit drugs.

“Additionally, people who have sought care for symptom management may have received telehealth visits instead of face-to-face care,” she said. “The DEA approved a new provider ability to prescribe scheduled medications (like opioids) during telehealth visits. While this may be beneficial for many patients, it may be very risky for some–and may lessen the ability to assess for patient risk factors and to educate patients on the risks of addictive medications.”

When asked how can loved ones and friends support people who overuse drugs or alcohol, Sean Esteban McCabe, professor and DASH co-director replied that If someone you live with is drinking or using drugs too much, bring it up in a nonjudgmental way from the perspective of health and love, and suggest resources for getting help. Students can encourage peers to seek free counseling at Counseling and Psychological Services or get connected to other students in recovery …

“Also, seek resources for yourself. COVID also provides an excellent opportunity to have conversations with your kids and loved ones about their relationship with substances,” said McCabe.

“Substance use disorders impact the entire family, and there are resources available to family members and children who need support,” McCabe continued. “Sometimes people live with loved ones who refuse to get help for their substance use. This is definitely the case during COVID when so many families are sheltering in place. There are programs designed to help people in these situations take care of themselves whether their loved one stops using or not. There are online support groups, and health professionals are finding new ways to support families during COVID.”

For the WalletHub study, Peggy Compton RN, Ph.D., FAAN – Professor and van Ameringen Endowed Chair, Department of Family and Community Health at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing was asked why American doctors overprescribe pain medications, and to what degree is that responsible for the current epidemic.

“Prescription opioids are no longer responsible for the current opioid epidemic,” Compton said, “illicit fentanyl analogs are.”

Compton, when asked about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the access to care and mental health of the population suffering from drug problems, answered.

“Despite some treatment barriers being lowered during the pandemic (longer methadone take-home doses, prescription of buprenorphine via telehealth), opioid overdoses have increased since March 2020. Stress, boredom, using alone (so not able to be reversed with naloxone), disrupted drug supply (thus users have fluctuating levels of tolerance) have all contributed. Telehealth is good for persons with internet access. It is important to immunize users.”

When asked what should family or friends do if they suspect someone has a drug problem, Barbara Andraka-Christou, assistant professor in the College of Community Innovation & Education, School of Global Health Management & Informatics, at the University of Central Florida, said essentially similar to what U of M’s Sean Esteban McCabe said.

“First, they should dispassionately explain to their loved ones what they are seeing,” said Andraka-Christou. “Second, they should explain that they want to help the loved one get treatment. Third, they should help the loved one seek and access evidence-based treatment options. If it is an opioid use disorder then that means finding a buprenorphine prescriber or opioid treatment program in the area, helping the loved one navigate any insurance/payment barriers to treatment, and helping the loved one find psychosocial support (if needed).”


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