Although addiction isn’t exactly a new problem, it wasn’t until it became the leading cause of accidental death that the seriousness of the heroin epidemic really came into focus for the population at large. In 2015, there were over 20.5 million Americans over the age of 12 with substance abuse problems. As well, there were more than 52,400 overdose deaths, 33,000 of which were caused by heroin and prescription painkillers.1 With more people developing addictions and dying from addiction than ever before, it follows that finding a solution for this problem should be a nationwide priority.

In recent years, we have amassed a ton of research that has offered clarity and informed much of the legislation pertaining to addiction. This research has facilitated the opening of countless drug rehabs and the development of innovative therapies that have saved millions of lives. However, if the addiction stigma that pervades public perception is any indication, this enlightenment hasn’t fully informed the population. Clearly, heroin’s effects are more far-reaching than any of us thought.

Public Opinion of Addiction

The general population has shown a tendency to see addiction as only affecting those who are addicted. Per this view, being addicted to alcohol or drugs separates “us” from “them.” Unfortunately, this type of separatist thinking only reinforces the stigmatization of addiction, resulting in the unsympathetic attitudes that man people have toward those who suffer from this disease.2 For some, the mere concept of addiction evokes a visceral, negative response due to the ongoing misconceptions inherent in public opinion.

Unfortunately, the addiction stigma is the result of negative reinforcement coming from a number of different places, but arguably the biggest facilitator of the addiction stigma has been the media. When addicts are portrayed in the media, it’s often in negative contexts, especially in reports of violent acts and other crimes committed by individuals with substance abuse problems.3 After hearing only about the most extreme cases of addiction in which the addicts commit heinous acts, most people get the impression that all addicts behave this way. Further, they often assume that only those who were bad people to begin with would ever develop addictions to alcohol or drugs.

The Many Effects of the Heroin Epidemic

Although many Americans want to distance themselves from the addiction epidemic, the reality is that we’re all affected by it in some way. Even those who have never had substance abuse problems likely know someone who has, and that individual’s substance abuse problem is likely to have had some type of effect on the relationship. Of course, the effects of the heroin epidemic on relationships are most readily seen in families, which is why it’s often called “the family disease.”4

Take a look at a historic timeline of the opioid epidemic.

The best way to describe how heroin has affected communities is to think of it as the ripples you get from dropping a pebble into water. From the point of entry, concentric circles spread further and further out, which is much the same situation with heroin. The dysfunction that families dealing with heroin addiction experience inevitably affects relationships in their communities. It’s not uncommon for an addict to resort to crime in a desperate attempt to sustain his or her habit, meaning that he or she contributes to the community’s crime rate.

If we take a look at the financial effects, addiction costs the United Statesmore than $200 billion per year, and over 10 percent of that, or $21.9 billion, results from heroin.5 When you break that amount down, it goes to healthcare expenses, law enforcement, criminal justice, and lost productivity, all resulting from a single drug.

It’s quite clear that heroin addiction isn’t merely the problem of those who are addicted. The epidemic that has ravaged communities large and small continues to be a problem for country as a whole. However, the silver lining is that it is within our power to solve this problem by working together and offering our support to those suffering from this disease. To reduce or perhaps even eliminate the stigma of heroin addiction, we should pursue educational initiatives to help people learn more about the disease. With a better understanding, people can be better able to empathize with those battling addiction.


Written by Dane O’Leary