The opioid crisis as a disease of despair?

January 22, 2022
Posted in:

A version of this post was originally published in 2018 and is part of an ongoing review of past posts about the conceptual boundaries of addiction, the disease model, and recovery.

The narrative that the opioid and overdose crisis is a product of despair has become very popular. The logic is that people in bad economic conditions are more likely to turn to opioids to cope with their circumstances and that their hopeless environmental conditions make them more likely to die of an overdose. This model frames addiction and overdose as diseases of despair.

This model fits nicely with other writers who have garnered a lot of attention on the internet.

  • Johann Hari presents addiction as a product of a lack of connection to others.
  • Carl Hart frames sociological factors as causative and argues that there’s a rationality to escaping terrible circumstances via drug use and that a form of learned helplessness eventually takes root.
  • Bruce Alexander is frequently cited to support these theories. He did the “rat park” study that found rats deprived of stimulation and social interaction compulsively used drugs, while rats in enriched environments did not.

These understandings are so intuitive, but what if they are wrong?

These narratives make so much sense, and they support other beliefs and agendas many of us hold. Further, it feels like no one is going to harmed by efforts to improve economic, social, and environmental conditions, right?

Well, that’s not quite true. Bill White pointed out that how we define the problem determines who “owns” the problem, and that problem ownership has profound implications for addicts and their loved ones.

Whether we define alcoholism as a sin, a crime, a disease, a social problem, or a product of economic deprivation determines whether this society assigns that problem to the care of the priest, police officer, doctor, addiction counselor, social worker, urban planner, or community activist. The model chosen will determine the fate of untold numbers of alcoholics and addicts and untold numbers of social institutions and professional careers.

The existence of a “treatment industry” and its “ownership” of the problem of addiction should not be taken for granted. Sweeping shifts in values and changes in the alignment of major social institutions might pass ownership of this problem to another group.

White, W. L. (1998). Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America, page 338

With so many bad actors in treatment right now, there is not a great rush to protect the treatment industry.

To be sure, we’d be better off of a significant portion of the industry disappeared. However, the disappearance of specialty addiction treatment would be tragic for addicts and alcoholics in need of help.

Further, it just so happens that there’s good reason to doubt the “diseases of despair” narrative.

New study casts doubt on “diseases of despair” narrative

A new study looked at county level data and examined the relationship between several economic hardship indicators and deaths by overdose, alcohol-related causes, and suicide.

Mother Jones describes the findings this way:

Economic conditions explained only 8 percent of the change in overdose deaths from all drugs and 7 percent of the change in deaths from opioid painkillers—and even that small effect probably goes away if you control for additional unobservable factors. It explained none of the change in deaths from heroin, fentanyl, and other illegal opioids.

Rising Opioid Deaths: Is the Cause Economic Despair Or Skyrocketing Supply? by Kevin Drum in Mother Jones

They quote the researcher as observing:

Such results probably should not be surprising since drug fatalities increased substantially – including a rapid acceleration of illicit opioid deaths – after the end of the Great Recession (i.e. subsequent to 2009), when economic performance considerably improved.

Rising Opioid Deaths: Is the Cause Economic Despair Or Skyrocketing Supply? by Kevin Drum in Mother Jones

If it’s not economic hardship, what is it?

Vox describes the study’s conclusions this way [emphasis mine]:

. . . the bigger driver of overdose deaths was “the broader drug environment” — meaning the expanded supply of opioid painkillers, heroin, and illicit fentanyl over the past decade and a half, which has made these drugs much more available and, therefore, easier to misuse and overdose on.

Why a better economy won’t stop the opioid epidemic by German Lopez in Vox

Leonid Bershidsky from Bloomberg noted the following:

The absence of an opioid epidemic in Europe indirectly confirms Ruhm’s finding. European nations have experienced the same globalization-related transition as the U.S. In some of them — Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain, even France — economic problems were more severe in recent years than in the U.S. Yet no explosion of overdose deaths has occurred.

. . .

There’s also a notable difference in what substances are causing overdose deaths. In the U.S., heroin accounted for 24 percent of last year’s overdose deaths. In Europe in 2018, its share of the death toll was 81 percent. That should say something about how supply affects the outcomes.

Supply, Not Despair, Caused the Opioid Epidemic by Leonid Bershidsky in Bloomberg

Piling on

Then, as if to drive the point home, BMJ posted a study examining the relationship between opioid exposure and misuse. They looked at post-surgical pain treatment,

Each refill and week of opioid prescription is associated with a large increase in opioid misuse among opioid naive patients. The data from this study suggest that duration of the prescription rather than dosage is more strongly associated with ultimate misuse in the early postsurgical period. The analysis quantifies the association of prescribing choices on opioid misuse and identifies levers for possible impact.

Brat G A, Agniel D, Beam A, Yorkgitis B, Bicket M, Homer M et al. Postsurgical prescriptions for opioid naive patients and association with overdose and misuse: retrospective cohort study BMJ 2018; 360 :j5790 doi:10.1136/bmj.j5790

The study “excluded patients with presurgical evidence of opioid or other non-specific forms of misuse in the six months before surgery.” (I would have liked more stringent exclusionary criteria, but it’s still instructive.)

Where does this leave us?

I’ll repeat (a modified version of) what I wrote in a post in response to Johann Hari’s TED talk that emphasized lack of purpose and connection as the cause of addiction and add economic factors to the mix.

  • Do economic/social/environmental factors cause addiction? No.
  • Are they important? Yes.
  • Do they influence the onset and course of addiction? Yes.
  • Do they influence the access and responses to treatment? Yes.
  • Is addressing those factors important in facilitating recovery for many addicts? Yes.
  • Do economic/social/environmental factors cause addiction? No.

Ok, but what about policy?

This leaves us with some uncomfortable (but obvious, to anyone paying attention to this crisis) findings to consider.

Much of the policy discussion over the last several years has been dismissive of supply as a factor in addiction. This poses very serious concerns about that stance.

I’ve never been dismissive of supply as an important consideration, but I am coming to believe that I’ve underestimated its importance.

A lot of that dismissiveness is in response to the drug war and the moral horror of mass incarceration.

The problem demands more of us than we are typically capable of. We need to figure out how to address illicit and licit supply without resorting to mass incarceration AND assure treatment of adequate quality, duration, and intensity.


A friend shared this Recovery Research Institute summary of epidemiological data on Substance Use Disorders. (I wish they wouldn’t use addiction and use disorders interchangibley.)

The provide data on SUDs by income, education, geography, age, gender, urban/rural, etc. I don’t see support for the disease of dispair narrative in their epidemiological data. Check it out here.

Copyright © 2024 Recovery Alliance Initiative
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram