Not so far away from the daily lives of most Americans is a growing crisis: the opioid epidemic. Government reports show that from April 2020 to April 2021, more than 100,000 people died from drug overdoses. These numbers don’t account for the people who have been lucky enough to survive, yet are still battling addictions to dangerous drugs.

Opioids destroy lives and families. It’s not a problem we can afford to ignore. The good news is that compassionate, skilled social workers can help to fight the crisis and save lives. Here’s how that might work in practice.

Strategies to Combat the Opioid Crisis

Fixing the opioid crisis will not be easy or simple. Both physical and psychological factors are involved in helping people to leave their addictions behind. “Public safety professionals at all levels should collaborate. A broad-based approach, to include treatment providers, health care and mental health experts, along with collaboration among federal, state, and local law enforcement sharing information and working toward a common goal has proven effective in reducing the opioid tragedy”, says John Born, Executive in Residence at Ohio University’s Online Masters of Public Administration.

Additionally, incredibly stronger synthetic drugs are now available illegally—namely, fentanyl, which has now far surpassed other opioids in causing overdose deaths. “Fentanyl has made the public health and safety challenge significantly more dangerous,” says Born. Fentanyl is so dangerous because it is many, many times stronger than morphine, or even heroin. As more of this synthetic drug enters the market, more people are dying every day. This creates even more urgency in fighting the opioid crisis, especially as the continuing effects of the pandemic affect drug use and compound the problem. Born says, ‘For the person using, for law enforcement and first responders, for family members, and for the community, fentanyl has also increased the urgency for a collaborative, coordinated response.”

Social workers have to work directly with the affected population and help them manage their individual addictions. This is a monumental task, but it is the only way to prevent overdose deaths. While addressing the supply of opioids is important too, social workers can be most helpful in pulling people out of the opioid addiction spiral and giving them tools to get their lives back on track.

The Five-Point Opioid Strategy

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has recognized the need for action in the opioid crisis and has developed a plan for tackling the problem. This five-point strategy is intended to address several different factors contributing to drug use and overdose deaths.

First, the plan involves increasing access to treatment. Social workers can help direct people to resources nearby so they can access medications and counseling for treating addiction and reducing overdoses. This is key for treating the physical symptoms of drug abuse.

Additionally, the plan includes increasing research into the crisis to better understand it and develop new ways to tackle the problem at different levels. Other research topics proposed within the plan include pain and addiction and pain management strategies.

Social workers may not be involved in research efforts, but they will be needed to implement the findings and directly help those affected. While research is concerned with theory, social workers put theoretical findings into practice to help people.

Opioid Epidemic Priorities Outlined by SAMHSA

People who are affected by the opioid crisis typically have to rebuild their lives from scratch. In addition to needing treatment for addiction, they are often unhoused and unable to find work.

To effectively help people get back on their feet and out of the cycle of drug abuse, the Substance Abuse, and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) government agency has outlined priorities for communities grappling with opioid abuse.

Treatment and recovery are key components, but the list also includes services like prevention, recovery housing, and criminal justice programs. SAMHSA also recommends funding for programs that reduce opioid abuse and ensure there are enough qualified providers for treatment. Social workers can play a key role by identifying the resources a person may need and helping them arrange those services. They can also be a part of the education and prevention effort.

Social Workers: The Vital Workforce Combating the Opioid Epidemic

Many people look at the opioid crisis through the lenses of economics or criminal justice. Social workers, however, are concerned with the human element of the opioid crisis. These compassionate and highly-trained professionals have the singular goal of helping individual people who are struggling.

Rebecca Gomez, Ph.D., LCSW, associate dean for academic and student affairs and associate professor in the VCU School of Social Work and co-author Erika Hildebrandt, LCSW and PhD social work student at Our Lady of the Lake University wrote in Social Work Today, “As the largest group of behavioral health service providers, social workers can play an enormously important role for those impacted by substance use disorders during this time.”

The criminal justice system serves to penalize people for breaking the law, such as those who use drugs illegally. But without social workers, very few drug offenders would be able to manage their addictions and build a better life. Social work is a challenging and often heartbreaking career, but it is vital work for communities across the United States. One way social workers can help, according to Gomez and Hildebrandt is, “by validating the very real factors of stress and strain that have been added to whatever preexisting challenges clients may have already been struggling with. This could begin to address some of the feelings of shame or guilt that clients may experience in the event of relapses or near-relapses.”

Social workers help to protect and support the most vulnerable members of our communities. They need to be on the front lines of the opioid epidemic, providing a lifeline and a sense of hope for people who are on a path of self-destruction. In return, we need to ensure that social workers are given the respect, support, and funding they deserve for taking on this vital and difficult work.

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