Substance Use Disorder and the Holidays

Although it should be a time of joy, many families will face tough situations this holiday season on account of a devastating drug epidemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), drug overdoses killed approximately 64,000 people in the US last year, rising more than 22% compared to 52,404 recorded drug deaths in 2015. Of those 64,000 overdose deaths, roughly 14,400 were due to prescription opioids and 20,000 due to fentanyl and fentanyl analogues.

With drug overdoses now the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50, most of us know someone who has been directly impacted by a substance use disorder (SUD) or lost a friend or family member because of SUD. With holiday parties in full force, many will face tough situations, whether it’s managing possible triggers for the person in early recovery; the anxiety of caring for a friend or family member with a use disorder or perhaps even coping with grief due to a friend or family member missing the celebrations entirely.

Although more than 21.5 million Americans had SUD in 2014, with nearly 8 million suffering from both a mental health and substance use disorder, these diseases are still associated with shame, embarrassment, and an overall misunderstanding. As former US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy stated, “(addiction) is not a moral failing, or evidence of a character flaw, but a chronic disease of the brain that deserves our compassion and care.”

Drug Overdose Trends in 2016

Using our database of more than 100 million lives, we looked at drug overdose trends between Thanksgiving and New Years for more than 400,000 members in a Medicaid population located in the Southeast. The drug overdose rate during the holidays was 22% higher than the previous non-holiday weeks (22.4 overdoses per week compared with 20), and of those drug overdoses, 57% occurred for individuals who received a prescription opioid in the past 12 months.

Those dealing with SUD typically feel isolated and hopeless, especially around the holidays, which may play a role in the increase in overdoses. It’s for these reasons that friends and family play an important role in identifying and discussing the issue with those battling addiction, and gatherings during the holiday season can serve as a good starting point.

Have there been drastic mood changes, including irritability and defensiveness? Are there new problems at work regarding attendance and/or quality of work? Has there been a loss of interest in things they were once passionate about? Although these aren’t always directly related to SUD, these are signs that intervention could be needed. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has several helpful online resources, including a national helpline and free online reading for friends and family.

“Whether it’s a family member who has started to abuse their opioids prescribed for chronic pain, or a friend dealing with depression and illegally using opioids, friends and family play an essential role in helping those suffering from substance use disorder take the first step to get help,” said Stacey E. Grant, PharmD, director of clinical consult services at axialHealthcare.

Because of the continued stigma associated with mental illness and SUD, it’s important to create a safe space with no judgement before starting a conversation with a loved one about these topics. Results vary, but some may be hoping for a way to talk about their substance use and begin their path to recovery. However, this conversation can prove to be very difficult when it comes to prescription opioids, since the drug may have been prescribed to that individual by a doctor for legitimate chronic pain.

“Even when patients receive opioid medications for valid clinical reasons, these medications present certain risks, including the potential for problematic use or the development of a use disorder,” said Katie Miller, director of clinical product development & relationship management at axialHealthcare. “It’s important for family and friends to voice their concerns and encourage their loved ones to talk with their doctor about getting help.”

No matter situation, friends and family members play a crucial role in taking the first step to help those with SUD get better, and starting a new year may be a great time to start the conversation with your loved one.

Looking for guidance on conversations about substance use disorder? Read this article for useful information no matter the stage a loved one is at in their journey (currently using, in treatment, or newly in recovery).


Leave a Comment

Scroll to Top