Understanding the root of the American heroin epidemic

We’ve been living in a national heroin epidemic for years now. But only in 2016 are we starting to open our eyes to it.

Heroin has been readily available for people – especially in middle-class and wealthy suburban areas – for a while now, and the New York Times writes about the uptick of heroin usage in those relatively low-crime areas.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released statistics on heroin use back in 2013 showing that white and younger people were the new heroin users. About 3.5 percent of those age 18-25 were using heroin from 2002-04; that percentage doubled to 7.3 percent by 2011-13. Similarly, usage rates among white people doubled from 1.4 percent in 2002-04 to 3 percent in 2011-13.

Opioid painkillers seem to be the gateway to heroin; those who take painkillers are 40 times more likely to use heroin, according to the CDC.

So how does this happen? Why are young white people suddenly the new poster children for heroin?

Like any phenomenon, there are multiple reasons – nothing is a straight line. Heroin is cheaper than ever. It’s accessible. And if you’re already taking something (like a painkiller), the opportunity for addiction to take hold is much higher.

And I think that’s the key here. These Millennials may already have a history of taking drugs, prescribed or not. In 2011, the National Center for Health Statistics showed antidepressant use among teens and adults rose by nearly 400 percent from 1988-94 to 2005-08.

That fits perfectly – almost too perfectly – into the narrative. Imagine a kid born in 1990 – squarely a Millennial – into a middle-class white family with opportunity and privilege. Imagine growing up in the suburbs to Baby Boomer parents who work constantly but try to keep their child in check. Go here, do this, be busy, be active. Wait, why isn’t my kid moving like I want him to? Why isn’t he happy all the time like he should be?

The answer becomes drugs. The kid’s taking an antidepressant by age 12. Maybe he’s been labeled – as so many kids were during this time – as ADD or ADHD. The drugs work because, hey, he can be molded more to his parent’s likeness. He can be a good boy.

But what happens? The kid’s in high school – the stresses of society, education and the media (and the internet) start to beat down. There’s one way out, thinks the kid – maybe some drugs will do the trick.

Of course this is a base reading of things, but you can see how easy it is for today’s Millennials to be addicted to drugs. Being perfect, coupled with the pressures of school and an image-first society, are natural antagonizers. This may lead to other antidepressants, maybe painkillers, and then heroin.

If we’re to stop heroin use, Narcan alone won’t do the trick (the article states that heroin users are already finding ways to take advantage of Narcan). We need to attack the root of the problem, which means starting with future generations, and investigating just why these kids are so quick to turn to drugs. Maybe it’s something they’re used to.