Recently, several Mendocino County agencies hosted a free fentanyl awareness summit to educate members of the public about the dangers of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that’s 50 times stronger than morphine and is lethal in very small doses. Nationwide, fentanyl overdose deaths are skyrocketing and sadly, Lake and Mendocino Counties are in the top five counties for opioid overdose deaths in California.
I came from Nevada County, also in the top five for opioid overdose deaths, and there, like here, many caring organizations and individuals are trying to turn that trend around. It’s so encouraging when agencies from healthcare, social services, and law enforcement collaborate to try to identify and address the problem.
In my work as a physician, I’ve treated patients for pain for more than 20 years and for substance use disorder (sometimes referred to as addiction) for 14 years. In that time, I’ve studied the common denominators that lead people to self-medicate as they try to alleviate suffering. Without a doubt, the most profound predictor of substance use disorder is childhood trauma (a.k.a. adverse childhood events).
Substance use disorder is a disease, and the disease process starts earlier than you’d imagine. When we ask patients about their first encounter with drugs or alcohol, many report being under the age of 10 years old. They were kids who were suffering, and many looked to role models for a way to feel different. Unfortunately, those role models—be they parents, peers, or others—showed them that drugs and/or alcohol could help them escape.
As humans, our brains are still developing into our early 20s, and when we add unhealthy chemicals at an early age, those chemicals affect brain development, often creating a dependency that is hard to overcome. This is one of the reasons I am so passionate about health education and prevention. Although there is a lot we can do to help adult patients, it is far better for everyone to support the healthy development of children.
In our region, marijuana is everywhere and there’s a sense that marijuana is perfectly safe, as opposed to alcohol or other drugs. I have no objection to consenting adults using marijuana, but minors and their undeveloped brain are at risk when using external chemicals like ones found in marijuana. Several scientific studies, including one recently published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, have proven that the younger the first use of cannabis begins, the more likely to develop an addiction.
We need to help promote the healthy development of the brain and create healthy ways to deal with negative emotions. It is critical to connect youth with people who can help them understand and manage their negative emotions. If you know a young person struggling to cope, help them get help. Talk to school counselors. Talk to healthcare providers. Talk to someone in their faith community. Be that adult who keeps checking in and fostering a healthy relationship.
At MCHC Health Centers, we’re working on health education programs that will utilize community outreach workers because we know that people need to hear from those they can relate to—people who belong to the same groups with the same social and cultural norms. Community health workers are trusted members of their communities who may be able to bridge the gap to treatment and help to restore hope into the community.
I work with adult patients and the downstream effects of their unresolved trauma. I teach my patients that pain is a door to health transformation and suffering is a door to spiritual transformation. We begin by identifying the sources of suffering. Once people understand their triggers, they can begin to use tools like Mindful Based Stress Reduction Techniques to manage their state of being. So, rather than being hijacked by negative emotions related to their past or related to the potential future, patients become better able to remain in the present. Our wonderful team of behavioral health specialists are an integral part of this transformational process by helping to equip our patients with the tools needed to relieve suffering.
We also work on how to build healthy relationships because these provide an antidote for addiction. Healthy relationships occur when people share mutual respect, kindness, and compassion, and when people take responsibility for their actions towards their neighbors. Healthy relationships occur when we love one another.
Finally, we focus on the physical aspects of recovery. Our bodies need nutrients to heal. You may have heard the phrase, “food is medicine.” Well, it’s true. Interestingly, meals served in many recovery centers are sugar-free and caffeine-free because these substances put your brain on a roller coaster ride, and withdrawal from these substances, like with other chemical substances, makes people feel irritable, tired, and restless.
With awareness and understanding, mindful-based stress reduction, good nutrition, and healthy relationships, people can overcome old patterns and live joyful, satisfying lives that are full of hope. And when they do so, they not only transform their own lives, they transform the lives of those around them and the lives of generations to come.
Dr. Christina Lasich specializes in pain management and substance use disorder treatment at MCHC Health Centers, a community-based and patient-directed organization that serves Mendocino and Lake Counties, providing comprehensive primary healthcare services as well as supportive services such as education and translation that promote access to healthcare. Learn more at mchcinc.org.