Addiction is a disease that can affect anyone regardless of age, gender, race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status.
There are numerous factors that play a role in the development of addiction including environment, genetic predisposition, family history, and mental health issues. In pop culture and mainstream media, addiction is often painted as an affliction that primarily affects people of color in poor economic standing, but the reality is far from that. Those with the highest risk of developing addiction are actually people with higher IQs, those who suffer from attention deficit or bipolar disorders, and white people.
Although rates of arrests associated with drug crimes are higher for people of color than white people, research shows that white people are far more likely to abuse drugs than almost every other race. Rates of substance abuse among white individuals have spiked in recent years, with rates of death attributed to drug use growing by 20 percent over the past 14 years. The change in mortality rates is unique to the United States with deaths from poisoning by drugs or alcohol rising, topping both lung cancer and suicide.
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Substance abuse and addiction are often painted as a youth-specific problem, but it is quickly becoming a problem for middle-aged white adults. The mortality rates of white people between the ages of 45 and 54 years old have increased dramatically, with many of these deaths be attributed to substance abuse, self-destructive behaviors, and suicide. People are questioning the factors and influences that have contributed to this shift in statistics. Research indicates that those who are most impacted and at risk to fall victim to these trends have lower incomes, have suffered economically and emotionally, and feel as though they are falling short of expectations. These experiences magnify the negative emotions, pain, and resentment many feel, contributing to a rise in substance abuse and suicide.
Many have been led to believe that with hard work and dedication, their efforts would pay off. If they were smart, charismatic, attractive, and socialized with the right people, there would eventually be a payoff. In some cases, they may have felt a sense of superiority compared to those they saw as “others,” believing that their efforts would allow them to ascend social ladders and fulfill the American dream. As time passes and these expectations fall short of reality, the need to self-medicate for the pain, despair, and other negative emotions they harbor is overwhelming, and many fall into a vicious cycle of abuse and dependency.
Health problems also often come with age. Whether or not health issues are related to addiction, economic inequality and the inability to pay for visits to the doctor can deter people from getting the help they need. Chronic conditions may go left untreated and cause negative side effects that drastically decrease quality of life. This is a major influence on the development of addiction to substances. Pain associated with illness and ailments cause many to turn to painkillers or alcohol to self-medicate. Inappropriate use of these substances leads to dependency, addiction, and worsened physical and mental health.
In some cases, a person may be prescribed medications to treat a specific illness or ailment, and they become addicted to their prescription. As tolerance develops, people often find they need larger doses of medications in order to achieve the same effects. Deviating from the way in which the medication is prescribed for use can lead to addiction, whether or not the person intended to misuse the drugs. The correlation between opioid prescriptions and addiction explains why addiction has spiked among middle-aged white adults. Between 1997 and 2011, countless individuals were seeking treatment for addiction to opioid painkillers. This directly correlates to the 1996 release of OxyContin, a powerful prescription painkiller. As the FDA moved to impose tighter regulations on prescription painkillers, those who struggled with addiction to these medications found themselves using heroin instead. Heroin, like painkillers, contains opium, but is easier and cheaper to obtain than prescription drugs. Since white patients were being prescribed painkillers at higher rates than all other races, the problem affected them at a dramatically higher rate. This history also explains the recent rise in heroin epidemics several states have experienced in recent years.
With an inability to access affordable healthcare and a general disconnect from social support systems, many middle-aged white adults have found the only way to escape the situation is through suicide. Unfortunately, substance abuse and addiction has contributed to a rise in the number of suicides among this demographic in addition to the rates of dependency on drugs and alcohol. Generational ideas, preconceived notions, and negative representations influence their perception of addiction, and often cause many to feel shame, guilt, or depression as a result. These negative emotions can be so overwhelming that admitting that there is a problem is not an option, and the only way to escape is through suicide.
Treating the New Face of Addiction
Addiction has long been stereotyped as an affliction of the youth, but the changing face of those affected means that approaches to treatment must be altered. The general perception of addiction has caused many to resist treatment and stubbornly try to address it on their own terms. This is incredibly dangerous for those who struggle with addiction, and without appropriate care, can lead to worsened conditions.
It is important to address the biggest influence in rising rates of addiction and suicide. For many, with age comes increased health costs, and if wages remain stable they can be difficult to manage. Many do not have access to healthcare, and if they do, may not be able to afford it in addition to the cost of living. While in previous years retirement was something many strived for and worked towards, it is now a distant dream for which people must work harder and longer. It is no longer a guaranteed luxury.
Chronic pain, health conditions, and substance abuse are all contributing factors to the rising number of unintentional drug and alcohol poisonings. For those who struggle with cost of living, paying for addiction treatment and managing diseases or illnesses is nearly impossible. Studies show that most middle-aged adults who commit suicide have less than a college education, work a lower income job, and struggle with economic inequality. Instead of asking for help, they may internalize their struggles and feel no need to carry on. Generationally speaking, mental health issues can be perceived as a sign of weakness rather than a condition in need of treatment. All of these factors make it difficult to reach this section of the population and provide them with access to the treatment they desperately need.
Changing the Conversation
In order to combat addiction effectively, it is important to recognize the unique influences and factors that contribute to its development. Age-specific treatment is as important to middle aged adults as it is to adolescents, and each patient’s unique experiences can drastically influence the way in which we address addiction.
To effectively treat addiction, it is important to address the unique needs of each person and acknowledge the environmental circumstances, family history, and other factors that contribute to its development. The treatment of middle-aged addiction must include discussions surrounding generational experiences and expectations as well as support networks, socioeconomic issues, and other health issues. Many middle-aged adults benefit immensely from dual-diagnosis treatment in order to treat both the addiction and underlying mental health disorders that influence its development. Many treatment centers also partner with general health doctors in order to treat the physical ailments and other conditions that can influence addictive behaviors.
Addiction is a highly personal experience, and an individualized approach to treatment is critical in addressing the unique needs of clients. For middle-aged adults, education, access to resources, and a reliable support network are critical to successful sobriety. Addiction treatment has long been stereotyped as a condition that affects only certain individuals, but this perception is dangerous for those who do not fit the mold. Changing the way in which substance abuse is viewed and addressed is vital to treating middle-aged addiction.