Heroin: America's Silent Killer

Heroin: America's Silent Killer

Heroin use in the United States has surged over the past decade. In fact, the number of first-time users doubled between 2006 and 2013, according to recent federal reports. Even scarier, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the rate of deadly heroin overdoses quadrupled from 2002 to 2013. While use has increased in all demographic groups, it has increased most among non-Hispanics whites, specifically those from 18 to 25.

Today, heroin-related suicides and overdoses are one of the leading causes of death in our country, killing more people than car accidents. In response to what the media have deemed a "heroin epidemic," policy makers, politicians, parents and families are talking about the disease of addiction.

Who Abuses Heroin?

In 2000, black Americans from 45 to 64 had the highest death rate for drug overdose involving heroin. Over the past 15 years, however, rates have changed radically. For nonwhites, the number of people who say they have used heroin in the past year is actually decreasing. Yet, as we watch heroin use go down in some populations, we are watching it skyrocket in others.

Heroin is increasingly prevalent in white suburbs. Today, white people 18 to 44 have the highest death rate for overdose and suicide involving the drug. According to the CDC, the heroin epidemic is hitting young adults more than any other age groups, leaving non-Hispanic white males from 18 to 25 at highest risk for addiction.

Heroin vs. Prescription Drugs

One of the leading explanations for the increase in heroin abuse, specifically among white Americans, is prescription drug abuse. People who are addicted to painkillers are 40 times more likely to be addicted to heroin. Flipped around, nearly half the people addicted to heroin also are addicted to painkillers.

As prescription drug use has increased, so has its misuse and abuse. In 2011, 52 million people 12 and older in the U.S. had used prescription drugs for a nonmedical reason at least once in their lifetime. In regard to prescription painkillers, one in 20 Americans 12 and older reported using painkillers for nonmedical reasons in the past year.

While it is true that heroin abuse has increased tremendously over the past decade, prescription drug abuse is shockingly even more common. In fact, studies have shown the number of overdose deaths from prescription pain medication is larger than those of heroin and cocaine combined.

As prescription drugs increase in availability and accessibility, so do the reasons teenagers use them. The following list shows the top motivations teens report for using prescriptions drugs:

Top 6 reasons teens use prescription drugs:

  1. 62%: They are easy to get from parents' medicine cabinets
  2. 52%: They are available everywhere
  3. 51%: They are not illegal drugs
  4. 50%: They are easy to get through other people's prescriptions
  5. 49%: Teens can claim to have prescription if caught
  6. 25%: They can be used as study aids

What makes prescription drugs so scary is the combination of their high rates of accessibility and the ease with which people can abuse them. Even more frightening is where they can lead in terms of other drug use down the road. Nevertheless, if you still think prescription drugs are to be taken lightly – no pun intended – it's time to think again. Whether you have a teen or are a teen, these issues should resonate with you and cause concern. In a decade where people are going to the doctors more frequently than ever before, it is time we begin to think, talk and raise awareness around this deadly disease of addiction.

To get help or learn more about HAMSA (Helping Atlantans Manage Substance Abuse) please email HAMSA@jfcs-atlanta.org or call 770.677.9318.

Photo credit: Wolfman-K

Written by Jessica Hallberlin, Posted in Counseling Services

About the Author

Jessica Hallberlin

Jessica Hallberlin

Jessie Hallberlin has long had a passion for helping others. She received her Bachelor of Science in psychology from the University of Georgia and recently graduated from Smith College School for Social Work with an MSW. As an intern at JF&CS, she used her clinical skills to provide both group and individual therapy to clients ;struggling with a wide variety of mental health issues, including addiction. She uses both psychotherapy and DBT techniques in working with clients, with a strong focus on the therapeutic relationship.