Most Americans have a certain image in their minds when it comes to drug abuse.

It often involves desperate criminals, blighted street corners, and dark rooms in seedy buildings – perceptions that reinforce the comforting belief that people struggling with addiction are nothing like “us.” It’s easy to discount abuse as an ill confined to a less-respectable stratum of society – one that can be ignored – if you’ve never seen a loved one devastated by chemical dependency.

As the medical director of the chemical dependency and behavioral health programs at Mission Hospital Regional Medical Center, I can tell you that a large percentage of people who have sought treatment in the rehabilitation center are men and women who would never dream of breaking the law. They are teachers, pilots, nurses and other professionals. They didn’t buy an illegal substance and they didn’t choose to “get high.”

Some of our patients suffered from job-related accidents; others are dealing with chronic medical conditions. They were seeking relief from physical pain and were prescribed common narcotics like hydrocodone and oxycodone, sold under the familiar brand names of Vicodin or Percocet.

Unfortunately, the risks of taking these powerful medications caused confusion, so let me be very clear – these drugs are simply synthetic versions of opium, from which heroin is produced. And like their natural cousins, derived from the poppy plant, they are highly addictive.

This is no isolated problem. It’s a national epidemic that grows worse each year. At the third annual National Rx Drug Abuse Summit last April in Atlanta, politicians, public health officials, law enforcement officers and addiction specialists gathered to assess the problem of opioid addiction and shared staggering numbers: More than 125,000 people across the country have died in the last decade from overdoses of opium-derived drugs.

And Orange County is on the front lines of this epidemic. We’re seeing levels of opioid addiction we haven’t seen in several decades. Only eight years ago, 12 percent of young adults receiving treatment in public programs throughout the county were addicted to heroin or prescription opioids. Today, it’s closer to 44 percent.

We also have a disproportionately large number of rehab clinics in the county where people come to break their cycle of addiction. This is a community health problem, a problem as real and as important as diabetes or heart disease. It will take compassion and education to quell it.

Last May, a major study of workers compensation cases in 25 states painted a bleak picture of California’s efforts to reduce the number of long-term prescriptions. The study found one in 10 injured workers in the state received an opioid for an extended period, few of them got psychological evaluations during the period, and fewer got treatment.

State guidelines to help prevent the kind of misuse that can lead to addiction and overdose are not being followed. News that two OC doctors were been disciplined for improperly prescribing these drugs is further reminder that doctors must be cautious about prescribing drugs that are too easily abused.

Even today, the science of addiction and the risks of prescribed opioids aren’t well understood. It’s important to educate both doctors and patients about other effective ways to treat pain. We are seeing more and more people who get their drugs legally who are becoming just as addicted as people scoring heroin on the street.

Opiate addiction is a major health challenge that is destroying families in Orange County and beyond, and it’s long past time for us to look at how we view these drugs. It’s going to require a seismic shift in thinking on the part of health care professionals, patients, and community members. We also need to ensure that patients understand the risks of these drugs, are properly monitored, and stop taking them as soon as possible.

And the public must help break society’s indifference to what is a preventable disease.

Dr. Jonathan Shaywitz is the medical director of the behavioral health program at Mission Hospital, Mission Viejo and the medical director of chemical dependency at Mission Hospital, Laguna Beach. He was previously the director of anxiety disorders at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

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