When President Donald J. Trump declares the opioid crisis a national emergency, it should give his administration the power to divert more funds, assign more manpower, and cut some red tape. Declaring national emergency to address an addiction epidemic is an unprecedented move, as it is typically reserved for short-term emergencies such as natural disasters or terrorist attacks.
Yet there is much debate on whether this move will actually help in solving such a complex matter. With 91 Americans dying from opioid overdoses every day, this number has now quadrupled in less than two decades, making opioids the number one killer of Americans under 50. That’s more than guns, car accidents and cancer. If we once thought that only certain communities are affected, today it’s all over the map.
In order to address a rapidly growing addiction of such magnitude, it is not enough to equip police officers with naloxone, expand controlled medications for addicts, or open more detox centers. These could alleviate the symptoms of the crisis, but won’t treat the addiction epidemic at its root.
What’s more, trying to hold the gigantic pharmaceutical companies accountable is a battle lost from the outset; Cracking down on doctors pressures them to under-prescribe, driving users to look for heroin on the streets a lot sooner, as was clearly shown in the case of Florida; the so called “war on drugs” has been recognized as a colossal failure; and that leaves some to blame the addicts themselves, which is like beating the messenger instead of reading the message.
The message we should heed is clear as a bell: we must look into the sociological factors that drive this addiction to massive proportions. In other words, we have to ask more profound questions such as “What makes people in our society turn to opiates to begin with?” And, “What is our society not doing to prevent the making of ever increasing numbers of opioid addicts?”
The Craving for Opiates Is a Craving for Connection
First, it’s important to recognize that the vast majority of opioid abusers don’t start from taking them for genuine physical pain. Rather, in most cases, those who abuse opiates turn to them due to a different kind of pain — an emotional pain.
There are opioid receptors all over our bodies, and they are designed to balance emotions such as panic and anxiety, in addition to physical pain. When we were babies, the milk we got from our mothers was rich with opioids, and when someone gives us a hug today, our brain stem generates opioids.
Many might be surprised to learn that, likewise, social support, mutual trust, a romantic relationship, a loving family or even just a safe and positive social climate, all drive the production of opioids right within our body. Thus, the need for opiates is deeply intertwined with our inherent wiring for human connection.
With this in mind, let’s look at what’s happening today: Our society actually makes people so stressed, anxious and lonely that their naturally balanced, healthy supply of opioids just doesn’t cut it. To put it into a simple social equation: We generate a lot more alienation, uncertainty and stress than we generate safety, compassion, and camaraderie.
Therefore, masses of people turning to artificial opiates can be seen as a natural counter-balance to an off-balance society.
A Wakeup Call for American Culture
Trump stated that the entire world has a drug problem, not just America. He’s right about that. What’s interesting about the opiate crisis is that it’s as if nature is telling us exactly what we need to change within our society.
This crisis exposes the deeply interconnected nature of the social species called humanity. We are connected with each other to our core, like cells in a single organism, and we are naturally drawn to each other for a sense of support and security. Both our biological and psychological resilience depend on positive and healthy relations within our social environment. And just like cells in a body, when we lose touch with the body as a whole, we grow sick and degenerate until we die.
However, this drug crisis also joins a list of other painful symptoms, all converging to show us that we cannot escape a massive transformation of Western culture. We have to acknowledge our dire need for healthy human connections and positive social climates. And sooner or later, we will have to actively heal our broken society.
In order to do that, we need to tap into the same mechanism we currently abuse – our inherent wiring for human connection. There is a method of circle-style workshops that provide safe and positive social interaction. These should be introduced into our workplaces, schools, retirement homes, and even kindergartens. They should be on our TV screens and all around the virtual world, so that anyone, long before they turn to opiate abuse, could easily find a supportive community that generates warm human connection.
Once we begin to do that, people will discover the natural high we are wired to experience just from being positively connected to each other. This kind of high won’t just solve opiate addiction, it will take us out of the narrow prism through which we view our social reality and empower us to envision how to reshape our societies.
We live in a time where the nature of human development compels us to deepen our connection to each other and enter a new level of human experience. The longer we stall, the more frustrated we will become, and more addiction will ensue. Instead, we should open our eyes to see the great opportunity for social progress that lies at hand.
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