A little over twenty years ago, doctors, as well as healthcare providers, became more confident in prescribing opioids to address pain in patients after being advised by pharmaceutical companies that opioids are indeed very helpful and non-addictive. However, because of the prevalence in opioid prescription and use, patients, unfortunately, began overbuying and misusing these. Nowadays, we’re seeing an opioid crisis. Here are the reasons why the opioid epidemic is now a valid cause of concern for families:

  1. High Death Rate

In the US, deaths from opioid overdose have been steadily increasing in the past years. Recently, opioids have already been identified as being the cause of death of over a hundred people per day, according to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics. Because of this, the country’s life expectancy has greatly decreased. Patients who may be suffering in pain now have easy access to prescribed opioids; they can’t help but sometimes resort to eventually purchasing riskier opioids such as fentanyl and heroin. Albeit powerful, these opioids lead to a higher risk of death. Even if family members wanted to alleviate a loved one’s suffering, the statistics cannot be ignored. Misuse of opioids can lead to a patient’s death.

  1. The Spread of Communicable Diseases 

Families with opioid-abusing parents suffer from a lot of medical problems initially as a result of neglect by their parents. Aside from malnourishment and sickness, the children are also exposed to the transfer of communicable and infectious diseases. Households with substance-abusing members usually fail to take care of standard hygiene, and as such, the heavy growth of viruses and bacteria is found in these households. Also, syringes and other devices for opioid use are usually left unattended around the house, thus making them easily accessible for children and pets. All these hazardous materials are there for easy access, which can further infect other members. Likewise, the substance-abusing members of the household likely do not take care of their own devices and are sometimes infected by diseases by their own intake of opioid pain medications.

  1. Economic Burden 

Aside from the obvious socio-economic effects that the opioid epidemic presents, a lot of second-degree and third-degree effects are cascading down into the many avenues of society. Children raised into substance-abusing households are often under-educated, which tend to result in further unemployment statistics. Children are being taken away from addict parents, and this burdens the foster care system of the state. Instead of just taking care of children from deceased parents, now they are more often dealing with children taken away from parents who are neglecting their children due to substance abuse.

It’s commonly said that there is no such thing as a functioning addict. There is no possibility for someone who is abusing opioids to function normally as an adult, much less as a responsible parent. Many opioid addicts depend mostly on their medications that they fail to realize that they have families who rely on them for sustenance and care. When one gets too dependent on these medications, they work and live every day focused solely on the next hit. They begin to do illegal things just to sustain their habits, and this sometimes results to arrest and neglect of their children.

  1. Foster Care Crisis 

A lot of cases for children of parents with substance abuse disorders result to intervention by the Child Protective Services. Many of these kids are transferred to foster homes, in which they strive to live normal lives and move on from their childhood trauma. While on the surface, it seems like a lot of problems are solved by taking them away from their neglectful parents, unfortunately, their caseworkers still have a mountain of problems to tackle. Most of these kids have been around substance abuse ever since they were infants until they grow past being toddlers. They have experienced neglect, malnourishment, abuse, and many other negative impacts of their parents’ behavior.

For some of these children, they are fortunate enough to be taken in by their relatives like grandparents, who take full custody and responsibility for their care. Children being raised by their grandparents or even great-grandparents are increasingly being common nowadays due to the opioid epidemic. School principals are seeing this more often, and have to deal with the different dynamics of children being raised in these unusual circumstances. For kids being brought up by grandparents or other foster parents, a lot of effort has to be exerted in order for them to gradually transition back to normal family life. Aside from the effects of emotional abuse on these children, physiological effects also need to be dealt with. Speech problems, malnutrition, and injuries from physical abuse are just some of the medical problems that caseworkers need to deal with on a daily basis.

  1. Ill Effects on Pregnancy

Obviously, the effects of misuse of opioid pain medication do not stop with the user, as it can harm those around them, too. No effect is more direct than the adverse effects of substance abuse on the unborn child of a pregnant mother. Women who get pregnant while still abusing opioid medications tend to continue with their dangerous habits. Bearing a child, which is most of the time unplanned, is not enough for them to think of their actions, and sometimes the additional stress brought by the pregnancy pushes them to use more of these substances.

Pregnant mothers who are addicted to opioid painkillers may choose to skip prenatal care in fear of their healthcare provider discovering their addiction and making them stop. As a result, the health of the fetus is always sacrificed. Many opioid users suffer from malnutrition themselves, and as such it also affects the baby’s proper growth in the womb. A lot of infants are now being born with a condition called neonatal abstinence syndrome, which is linked to birth defects, congenital diseases, and severe withdrawal symptoms by the infant upon birth. Infants affected with this syndrome suffer from nausea, tremors, and seizures. Children of opioid-dependent mothers are also observed to have uncontrollable high-pitched cries at such young stages, due to their withdrawal from the opioid substances. While the focus is on the immediate withdrawal symptoms of the infants, it is also known for these babies to have long-term developmental delays and permanent learning disabilities for the children as the effect of their mother’s addiction.

  1. Unstable Home Environment

Kids brought up into the world by opioid-dependent parents have to go through a harsh environment while growing up. They are exposed to a wide variety of traumatic experiences that result in secrecy, deception, loss, conflict, violence, and fear. The chaotic atmosphere that these children live in offers little stability and dependability that are crucial to one’s development in the early years. Their parents’ drug dependency affects so much of their lives that they fail to anchor themselves on something stable and predictable. This instability impacts the child’s growth and development, both physically and emotionally.

The world that substance-dependent people live in is filled with corruption, deception, and abuse, that the children sometimes grow up without knowing what should be normal or not. Toddlers are left locked in their own rooms, often getting their own meals from the refrigerator, depending on sugar and junk foods for sustenance. Therapists for children taken away from opioid-affected households often report accounts of sexual and physical abuse, even for toddlers. Trauma resulting from this abusive environment can impact the child’s growth until they become teenagers if not managed properly. This is why the caseworkers and therapists are tasked with the difficult challenge of probing these children for what they have experienced, to determine what they have to deal with. Top this off with the fact that these children may have speech impediments and communication difficulties as the result of neglect, and it becomes nearly impossible for these experts to get the full picture. 

  1. Rise of Sexual and Physical Abuse for Children

Statistically speaking, parents who are diagnosed with substance use disorder are more likely to physically or sexually abuse their own children, resulting to further strain to the already traumatized children who have lived in the abusive environment of the opioid user. Withdrawal symptoms sometimes result to parents lashing out on their children and other family members, who become regular stress outlets. The increasing frustration on both ends usually escalates to beatings, which normally arise from petty concerns which flare-up to out-of-control disputes.

Another risk that children are exposed to when being brought up in an opioid-dependent household is for them to be taken care of by unreliable caregivers. Usually, the peers of the addict parents are addicts themselves as well, and are prone to the same tendencies and unpredictable mood swings. This may result in the child missing an opportunity to forge that bond with a constant parent figure, which is crucial to one’s growth. Older children tend to take the role of the caregiver, which they are prematurely being exposed to. All these factors mean that the children do not have that necessary connection with a consistent parental figure, which makes them more vulnerable to trauma and stress, and may have problems with anxiety and mental health disorders when they grow older. 

  1. A Decrease in Overall Life Expectancy 

The decrease in overall life expectancy of certain demographics has a major effect in the usual way of family life. Many children are orphaned at a young age due to deaths of parents as a result of opioid overdose. Many single parents are left alone to take care of their children due to spouses or partners dying from an overdose. The overall life expectancy of the US has been profoundly affected by the opioid epidemic. Grandparents or other relatives have to take care of very young orphaned children, and some more unfortunate children are left on the streets homeless or are taken into foster homes. 

  1. Negative Effects on Work Performance

When professionals who may be suffering from chronic pain have access to opioids, it’s very easy for them to continue using these in order to keep up their ability to perform at work. However, opioid use has its own adverse effects on workers in much the same way that other kinds of substance abuse such as alcoholism affects the optimal performance of employees in the office or company.

As with all companies, it’s expected that all employees will be coming to work alert, exhibit quick reflexes, and always act with accuracy or precision—whether it be manual labor or working with data and online information. Opioid-dependent workers, however, may exhibit poor decision-making skills at work and may manifest as being dull or not quick to act. Moreover, their perception of things as well as their motor abilities, are bound to affect their very safety while at work or the safety of the company.

Although patients at the onset may have resorted to opioid use in order to keep working at their jobs, dependency on these medications may eventually lead to more absences from work, other illnesses and complications, as well as a decrease in work productivity. Sadly, even while in the office, opioid addicts may be distracted and be more preoccupied with how they can have access to more opioids and how to use these during work hours. Employees who have become dependent on opioids may also try to sell these and other illegal drugs to co-workers in order to finance their own addiction.

It’s not only opioid-dependent employees who are seriously affected when they’re at work. Loved ones and relatives of opioid addicts may experience stress and trauma from having to live and deal with an addict. They bring the effects of the stress and may perform poorly while at work.

Conclusion

While it may be a good idea at the start for both doctors and families consenting to give a loved one in pain prescriptions for opioids, it may end up causing more harm than good in the long run. While opioids can effectively manage pain in a suffering patient, the said patient may become hooked and dependent on these just to manage in daily life. Loved ones and relatives really need to monitor the patient, and make sure that the patient is not overusing or misusing opioids even after the need for these has passed.

Cite this article as:
Editorial Staff, "Why The Opioid Epidemic Is A Real Concern For Families," in Medicalopedia, July 29, 2019, [Permalink: https://www.medicalopedia.org/7647/why-the-opioid-epidemic-is-a-real-concern-for-families/].