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Why Families Are Still the Front Line of Defense in Opioid Addiction

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In recent weeks the government has taken positive actions to combat the opioid epidemic. The President announced steps to prevent opioid addiction and also to appropriately treat the 3.3 million Americans who already have opiate addiction. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released new opioid prescribing guidelines based on studies showing opioid painkillers work best for relieving cancer-related pain and acute pain during the first few days after an injury or a surgical procedure. Beyond that, opioid medications are not necessarily more effective at relieving pain than non-addictive or non-medication alternatives.

It will be impossible to stop the opioid crisis without assistance from government, and I hope the President’s passion for this cause galvanizes a national effort that turns the tide. However, much of the power to reduce the number of people becoming addicted and increase the number of people getting help exists within the family.

We know that the initial call to an addiction treatment center often comes from the family. We also know that strong family support helps keep a person in treatment for the duration of their rehab program, giving them a better chance for recovery.

The Best Position to Help

Part of our effort to combat the opioid epidemic should be to help people understand what they can do within their own families to help prevent addiction. Family members have a role to play in making sure loved ones don’t fall into addiction and, if they do, family members are often in the best position to recognize it and do something about it. Here are five things families can do to help:

#1 Educate Yourself and Your Loved Ones About Addiction

Get educated about the biochemical processes of addiction and how physical dependency develops and can escalate to addiction. Talk about the dangers of prescription painkillers as well as effective pain management alternatives.

To the greatest extent possible, keep prescription painkillers out of the house and properly dispose of any unused medication. Studies show that 53% of opioid users obtain the medication from friends, family or the medicine cabinet, not a doctor. Many people addicted to opiates like heroin and fentanyl got their first exposure via prescription opioids found in the home medicine cabinet.

#2 Learn How to Spot Opioid Addiction

Learn about the signs of opiate addiction so you know when to step in and help. These include:

  • Changes in habits such as poor hygiene or withdrawal from favorite social activities
  • Increased drowsiness or sedation during waking hours (nodding off)
  • Elated mood (high) and/or changing moods
  • Confusion
  • Constricted (small) pupils
  • Constipation
  • Slowed breathing (inhibited respiration is often the cause of opioid overdose)
  • Withdrawal symptoms when a prescription runs out, such as increased pain and/or flu-like symptoms such as headache, nausea/vomiting, diarrhea, sweating, fatigue, anxiety and insomnia

#3 Take Action as Early as Possible

If you see signs of addiction in a loved one, don’t wait to do something. It is time to slay the myth that an addict must hit “rock bottom” before getting help. Most people with addiction are in denial, and it often takes some time in treatment to recognize that they have a problem.

The family can help get the addict into treatment and keep them on the recovery path long-term. Loved ones can:

  • Have an honest conversation with the addicted person about their drug use and how it is affecting them and the rest of the family.
  • Help them choose an addiction treatment program, and be ready to do some footwork. Since an addicted person is typically in denial or not in a state of mind to explore treatment options, facilitate the process by researching programs, finding out if they accept your insurance plan and getting them safely into treatment.
  • Once a loved one is in treatment, participate in any family days or family-focused sessions the program offers to show your support and willingness to be involved in the healing process.
  • Do what you can to facilitate your loved one’s adherence to their aftercare plan, including long-term therapy or pursuing resources that can help resolve financial and employment problems.

#4 Be an Ongoing Source of Support

A common misconception is that when a person completes an addiction treatment program they are cured. The truth is that recovery is a long, hard road, and rehab is the beginning of the process. You can participate in treatment and support your loved one through rehab, but the work continues after they leave the structure of the rehab center. This is when they need additional support from family and a sober community to help them cope with triggers for relapse and learn how to effectively manage pain without prescription painkillers.

It is estimated that 62% of the 10.6 million Americans who report that they overused or misused prescription opioids in the past year were taking the medication to relieve physical pain. Family members can make life easier for a loved one who lives with pain by asking how they can help — perhaps doing the activities that exacerbate pain or injury, such as grocery shopping, housecleaning and other physical chores, and offering to take them to support group meetings and medical appointments.

Family members can join Nar-Anon and similar support programs for families of addicts to learn how to support the recovery process, avoid triggers, cope with relapses and practice good self-care.

#5 Help Prevent Other Families From Suffering

Whenever possible, be open about your family’s struggles with addiction. Sharing your story helps reduce stigma around this disease and may help someone else who is struggling in silence. Addiction can happen to anyone and in any family, even in families that don’t have a history of addiction or condone drug use. Telling others about how your family member became addicted and recovered lets others know they aren’t alone and might inspire them to get help.

So, while federal agencies and the White House focus on stopping the opioid epidemic at the national level, families can focus on tackling it at the grassroots level, beginning at home.

Why Families Are Still the Front Line of Defense in Opioid Addiction

David Sack, M.D.

Dr. David Sack is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry, and addiction medicine. As CMO of Elements Behavioral Health, he oversees a nationwide network of treatment centers including drug and alcohol rehab programs at The Ranch in Tennessee and The Right Step in Texas.

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APA Reference
Sack, D. (2019). Why Families Are Still the Front Line of Defense in Opioid Addiction. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 14, 2020, from


Last updated: 19 Mar 2019
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