It seems that we cannot read a newspaper or watch a newscast without hearing about opioids and the public health crisis our country is facing.

How do people become dependent on drugs?

Physical dependence occurs when someone takes a certain drug or medication for a long time. For example, taking opioids — medicines typically used for pain relief —for an extended period changes the way your body functions. When someone becomes dependent on opioids, they will experience what is known as withdrawal symptoms if they stop taking the medication. They may experience sweating, nausea, vomiting, chills, pain, fatigue, depression, or insomnia. However, physical dependence is separate from addiction.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), opioid use disorder reflects a problematic pattern of opioid use leading to clinically significant impairment or distress. This can result in seeking out the drug even when it may cause negative consequences, such as problems with your health, relationships, or work.

The impact of opioid use disorder

Opioids induce a sense of euphoria, which make them highly addictive and susceptible to being misused. Misuse involves using opioids more often, longer, or at higher doses than prescribed. It also may result in obtaining the drug illegally, either in the form of prescription opioids or other forms, such as heroin.

Misuse frequently leads to tolerance and withdrawal symptoms once the medication is discontinued. Tolerance is the need to use more and more of the drug to achieve the same effect; withdrawal is the experience of psychological and/or physical symptoms when someone reduces or stops using opioids after a period of prolonged use.

A primary sign of opioid use disorder is difficulty cutting down or controlling the use of opioids or continuing to use despite the negative consequences. When someone is addicted to opioids, daily life becomes severely affected. This includes:

  • failure to fulfill major responsibilities
  • withdrawal from important relationships or activities
  • legal consequences
  • increased physical or psychological problems

Helping someone who is struggling with opioid use

If you are concerned about a friend or a loved one, approach them with love, compassion, and concern. The following are tips for addressing the situation:

  • Try to avoid making accusations or blaming the person as this often leads to more shame and guilt, which can further promote substance use.
  • Let your loved one know how the use of the drug has changed him or her, and how it has impacted your relationship.
  • Share your worries about his/her well-being with honesty.
  • Offer to help your loved one find treatment options. When struggling with addiction, it can feel overwhelming to search for and ultimately accept treatment.
  • Support your loved one through the recovery process.

What is the best treatment for opioid use disorder?

Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is the first line treatment for opioid use disorders. MAT involves the use of a FDA-approved medication (either Methadone, Buprenorphine, or Injectable Naltrexone) in combination with behavioral therapy and social support. Methadone and Buprenorphine work to suppress withdrawal symptoms and cravings, while Naltrexone can be used to prevent future relapse. There are different guidelines and requirements for prescribing each medication. You should work collaboratively with your doctor to determine which option is best for you.

How are family members impacted by opioid use disorder?

You cannot stop someone else from continuing to use substances. But there is a great deal that you can do to take responsibility for your personal well-being and to ensure your own needs are met. This will make you more supportive and better equipped to deal with stress over time.

Supporting a loved one with addiction can take its toll on you. Be sure you take care of yourself by building up your own support network and seeking counseling when needed.

Common self-care pitfalls include:

  • sleep deprivation
  • poor eating habits
  • failure to exercise
  • failure to stay in bed when ill
  • postponing or failing to make medical appointments for yourself
  • taking on others’ responsibilities
  • not asking for help when needed

What resources are available for family members?

We recognize that the family is an important part of substance abuse recovery. That is why we offer family education and support programs at the Lifespan Recovery Center.  

In addition, these resources are available:

  • 211 is a 24 hour a day, seven days a week hotline to connect people to resources for substance abuse, mental health, or basic needs. 
  • 988 is a hotline to connect anyone to a trained mental health professional any time of day for support for substance abuse, mental health, or suicidal thoughts.
  • Al-Anon or Nar-Anon: 12 step program for family and friends of individuals struggling with addiction
  • Ocean State Coalition of Recovery Houses Support Line: 401-942-7867 (401-942-STOP)
  • REST (Resource, Education, Support, Together) 
  • Parent Support Network
  • Individual or family counseling

The opioid crisis is real. But working together we can help. Learn more on our website.

Kirsten J. Langdon, PhD

Dr. Kirsten Langdon is a clinical psychologist at the Lifespan Recovery Center. She is the author of scientific publications focused on identifying and modifying cognitive and affective mechanisms that underlie the co-occurrence of mood/anxiety and substance use disorders.