Opioids and mental health disorders probably do not seem like a good mix in anyone’s mind. I’m sure most of the general public would find it problematic to prescribe opioids to someone with a mental health disorder, but every day, physicians across the country prescribe large numbers of opioid prescriptions to these patients.
Dave Chase, in his book The Opioid Crisis Wake-Up Call, writes, “According to a recent study, more than half of all opioid prescriptions in the United States annually go to adults with a mental illness, who represent just 16 percent of the U.S. population.”
Why do we over-prescribe so many opioids to people with mental health illnesses? I can think of three potential causal models that lead to our over prescription of opioids for people with mental health disorders. 1: our system was never set up to treat health broadly speaking, 2: mental health has always been stigmatized and hidden in America, and 3: we have sabotaged ideas of community in the United States as we pursue our own self-interests and spend unreasonable amounts of time working and commuting.
1: The history of the American medical system was focused on interventions and solving health problems after the problem had popped up. Insurance companies were created to help people access different parts of the medical system, and over time private insurance has become more or less the only way to reasonably access affordable medical care in the United States. Our reliance on third party payers allowed prices to profligate, and it feels as though we are at a point where we can’t turn the ship around. If you have a mental health disorder, you are less likely to have stable employment, which means you are less likely to have quality health insurance provided through your job, and less likely to establish the mental health care that you need. As a result, you probably see your primary care provider and end up with an opioid prescription during your 10 minute appointment because your doctor doesn’t have time to really work with you on addressing your mental health challenges.
2: There are many examples throughout history of people hiding children with intellectual disabilities. Generations before us warehoused children in mental health institutions that did little to help improve health. We are mostly beyond that today, but nevertheless, we hide anxiety, depression, learning disabilities, and other mental health challenges from our friends, families, and coworkers. We still don’t do a good job of accepting that mental health disorders are not something that people should be ashamed of, and many people do not seek appropriate care but instead life lives that are less than healthy, where ending up with an opioid prescription, or self-medicating with something worse, is a less public alternative to dealing with mental health challenges.
3: Tying both points one and two together, our lack of community makes mental health management almost impossible. We don’t have a lot of friends and family members that we can truly rely on for help with physical, mental, and emotional challenges. It may take a village to raise a kid, but we have run away from our villages to hide in our suburbs. We have dis-invested in the communities where we live and as a result, people with mental health disorders lack the social support systems necessary to truly address their needs. Even if people with mental health issues have some family and friends close by, those who they rely on probably lack the support they need to care for someone with mental health challenges. We spend too much time at work, spend too much time commuting to work, and don’t have time to help those who are more vulnerable. As a result, we simply shut people with mental health disorders out of our lives and out of society, and numb their lives with opioids.
Our country has not set up a system that truly takes care of our health, from before we are sick or have significant health challenges through to a successful recovery. We have overloaded the system that we built which was designed for people with the means to afford care after they were ill. We have ignored mental health and pretended we didn’t know it was an issue, until now, when it is too late and we don’t have the supports we need. Our communities are non-existent, and taking the steps to care for our community feels impossible.
The path forward involves a shift in how we provide, pay for, and think about healthcare. The systems we turn to for health need to move up-stream, where we focus on health before people are sick. To do that, we have to be honest about things like mental health, we have to be willing to provide spaces and community so that people can engage with healthy lifestyles and behaviors. We have to break out of our 40 hour work-weeks, and find ways to work closer to where we live, to end the soul sucking commutes that so many of us have. We have to give people time, and develop communities of support so that we can take care of our health and the health of those most vulnerable people in our communities. Without making these transformational changes, we will be stuck in our default of opioid prescriptions, unable to give people what they need to live healthy and meaningful lives.