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Florida--aptly named "The Sunshine State" for its beautiful weather--brings to mind bright sandy beaches, rolling waves, and blue skies. But, there's a storm darkening the Florida horizon, and its more deadly than any hurricane.
Drug and alcohol abuse is a national problem, and no state in the US has been spared. But for Florida—the southernmost state and one that has always grappled with a large amount of poverty--the circumstances are particularly challenging. We know that there is a correlation between poverty and addiction, and Florida is one of the poorest states in the nation, ranked 38th. (It's also 5th in the nation for the highest percentage of households earning between $25,000 and $49,999.)
Since the early 1980s, Florida has been a center of the drug trade (specifically south Florida) and the number of Florida residents that struggle with substance abuse disorder is continuously on the rise. Millions of Floridians are dependent on alcohol, opioids, heroin, methamphetamines, or cocaine. According to the CDC, fatalities from alcohol poisoning are more common in Florida than almost anywhere else in the US.
Given Florida's poverty rate and high addiction statistics, it would be easy to think that poverty causes the addiction. But, when we look at the relationship between addiction and poverty, we quickly realize that it's a bit more complicated.
Poorer people are statistically more likely to struggle with drug or alcohol abuse, but this doesn't necessarily mean that poverty causes addiction, per se. In fact in some cases, financial troubles are the direct result of a substance use disorder.
Poverty does increase stress, and stress is well recognized as a factor for substance abuse and relapse. When you're struggling, there's a great temptation to turn to substances that make you feel good, like drugs and alcohol. Poverty also increases feelings of hopelessness and decreases self-esteem, which can leave some people more vulnerable to developing substance abuse disorders. But, addiction can cause people to slip into poverty too. Someone who is solidly middle class can fall into poverty if their addiction leads to poor work performance and job loss. It can also then be harder to get a new job, if someone has been fired from their old one. It's a vicious downward spiral.
Much like the rest of the United States, the scourge of opioid addiction has blown through Florida like a hurricane, laying waste to whole communities, and decimating families. It's a particularly menacing foe because it's an addiction that can sneak up on people, even when they think they're being vigilant.
Prescription painkillers (like Oxycontin, Vicodin, and Percocet) are highly addictive, in large part because they activate the powerful reward centers in the human brain. These drugs trigger the release of endorphins, (your brain's feel-good neurotransmitters) which mask or interrupt your perception of pain and enhance feelings of pleasure and happiness, creating a short-lasting but extremely powerful sense of well-being. It's only human to love the feeling! And, when an opioid starts to wear off, it's in our very human nature to crave the return of that wonderful sense that everything is perfect and as it should be. This is the first step on the path toward addiction, and it can happen even to people who think they're being careful.
The root of the opioid problem stems from doctors over-prescribing these highly addictive drugs when, in many cases, Tylenol, Excedrin or Advil will do. These drugs may seem safe, especially when doctors prescribe them, but just one or two of few these prescription pain pills can get people hooked and send them off on a downward spiral into the throes of full-on dependency. Southern states, including Florida, have the most prescriptions per person for opioid painkillers. In 2010, the Department of Children and Families reported that 7 Floridians were dying every day from opioid poisoning.
Unfortunately, prescription painkiller abuse can often send people down far darker paths. Opioids often lead to heroin addiction, (as heroin is cheaper than the pills, and usually far easier to obtain on the street.) The spiral downward doesn't stop there. When certain street drugs like heroin aren't available, drug abusers often then turn to incredibly powerful and dangerous synthetics like fentanyl, which sooner or later result in a body bag. In the United States, synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, are now the most common drugs involved in drug overdose deaths, responsible for 59% of all opioid-related decedents. 2015, Montana's annual average percentage of major depressive episode
A 2010 study took a look at the substances most commonly abused by Florida youth, and the numbers are concerning:
34% of Florida high school students (grades 9-12) report they've ever used marijuana.
5% of high school students report they've used any form of cocaine.
3% of Florida young (ages 12-17) report using pain relievers in any way not directed by a doctor in the past year.
The good news for Floridians struggling with drug and alcohol addiction is that help is only a few clicks away. The Sunshine State is awash in resources, whether you just need counseling, a larger community-based approach, or full-on detox services. All it takes is the courage to take the first, terrifying step. Embrace the pain that got you here. Use it, own it, and move past it. Today is the first day of the rest of your life.