The United States is Struggling with Multiple Opioid Epidemics

USA money and opioid epidemic

When the opiate epidemic is focused on, it’s considered to be just ONE problem. But in reality, the United States is struggling with multiple opiate epidemics.

When we hear about the opiate epidemic, it is called just that, an epidemic. Some dub it a national public health emergency, others say it is a crisis. It's all of those things. Millions of Americans are addicted to opiates, and tens of thousands die from their addictions every year.

A big part of tackling the nightmare that is America’s opiate crisis lies in better understanding the problem. And thanks to recent data published in the Wiley Online Library, there is new information that will help the American people in overcoming the epidemic.

And as it turns out, the U.S. is struggling with multiple opiate epidemics, not just one.

Several Opiate Epidemics Ravage the United States

Study authors Peters, Monnat, Hochstetler, and Berg worked together to study the epidemiology of America’s opiate crisis, and what they found was insightful. Their data suggests that, while all of America is struggling to some degree with an opiate crisis, different areas are affected by the problem differently. And from that, it can be quickly concluded that there will be no “one size fits all” solution to the opiate epidemic, not if the problem is significantly different from one region to the next.

The opiate crisis began in the late 1990s with the misuse of pharmaceutical opioids. Then it transitioned to the use of illicit, synthetic opioids and street mixtures, including fentanyl. Heroin came back on the scene as well, with most of this transition occurring in urban areas.

But at the same time, the opiate problem was developing in rural America, too, which is a region that has historically not been as severely affected by addiction problems as urban America. The authors found that prescription‐related opiate problems struck down hard in rural counties, areas that, to this day, have been more or less left behind in America’s effort to combat the epidemic.

The authors classify the agrarian crisis as one which affects sparsely populated counties comprised mostly of older, white farm and factory retirees. The authors suggest that such communities have been in a decline since the 1990s, both economically and health-wise. These rural communities have been deeply impacted by pharmaceutical opiate addiction.

On the other hand, today’s urban regions experience the opiate crisis differently from non-urban areas. And each individual urban area experiences this crisis differently depending on where each is located.

For example, heroin reigns supreme in the cities of the Midwest and West. These cities have struggled, much like their rural counterparts, as deindustrialization and significant changes in agriculture have adversely affected much of the Heartland (Midwest) and the Breadbasket (Great Plains) of America.

And in the Northeastern urban centers, fentanyl has taken over, mostly affecting ethnic minorities and poor folks. In these urban sectors, the opiate crisis has followed the path of previous drug epidemics, absolutely devastating an entire class of people that (like the old farmers and factory workers of rural America) have been in many ways forgotten.

It would seem that the opiate epidemic is at least three problems, instead of one. The rural drug crisis and the different urban epidemics are quite different from one another, and they likely require different approaches to remedy them. But thus far, none of these problems have seen much improvement.

What can the average American do to make a difference?

What You Can Do to Curb the Epidemic

Sunny neighborhood

It’s often the case that in the face of a severe public health crisis, Americans look to state and federal governments to solve the crisis. And there is a great deal of benefit and help that comes from public health departments, government-funded research, publicly-funded hospitals, state-run health clinics, etc. However, a public health emergency like the drug problem is not something that the government alone can fix. Now that it is clear that the opiate crisis is a combination of disasters, with each crisis being slightly different than the next, it becomes even more clear that this is a problem which needs to be addressed by personal and local communities, not just the government.

Thankfully, there is much that each resident can do to help curb the crisis.

There are two primary methods for cracking down on a drug problem. These are prevention and rehabilitation. Prevention means taking decisive action to prevent people from using drugs and alcohol. It means educating people about drugs, talking to people about the harmful nature of drugs, supporting local law enforcement, raising awareness of the drug problem, supporting educational programs within schools, and other means.

When everyone works together to prevent others from using drugs, that slows the process by which new addicts are made. It’s worth mentioning that 2.8 million people try drugs for the first time each year. Much of that first-time use results in addiction. If every American is working on preventing the drug problem from growing, that first-time use statistic can eventually be brought down to zero.

The next effort that individual Americans can take is to help those they know who are actively struggling with drug and/or drinking problems. There are about 19.7 million people in the United States who are afflicted with addiction. The addiction crisis will not reduce until those who actively use drugs and alcohol are helped with treatment programs.

If you know someone who is addicted to drugs and alcohol, now is the time to act, to help them seek treatment. Drug addiction is a constant, daily life-or-death ordeal. Tens of thousands die from drug overdoses every year. Don’t let this happen to your family member or loved one. Help them find their way into treatment today.




After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.