Drugs – whether alcohol, cannabis, heroin, opioids or any other addictive substance – alter how the brain functions. These changes persist long after the drug’s effects are gone and even after an individual has stopped using the drug. This is possibly an explanation as to why people who abuse drugs often relapse even after years of abstinence. When experts started looking into addiction and associated behaviour back in the 1930s, people addicted to drugs were perceived to lack willpower, be morally flawed and many times instead of being given the help which could’ve made a difference, they were met with stigma.

These prejudices shaped how societies responded to drug abuse and addiction. Only as of several years ago, addiction and people affected by it started receiving the attention and understanding needed and more prevention initiatives were put in place. Science definitely played a key role in all of this. In-depth research into how addictive substances act on the brain and the compulsive, incontrollable biological responses they trigger thus influencing the behaviour as well, has helped break down silos and better position authorities to effectively address the problem. Imagine that genetic factors can increase a person’s vulnerability to addiction by about 60%.

However, polls such as the one conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research in 2018 continue to show there is still more work that needs to be done and more awareness raised to position addiction as a disease. It’s great that most medical authorities see addiction this way, but when it comes to the public the gap becomes more evident. For instance, 53% of Americans involved in the AP-NORC survey said they view addiction as a medical issue, but they still have concerns regarding addicts and their ulterior motives.

Less than one in five admitted to being willing to be associated with a person suffering from addiction, even more worrisome they said that this would apply whether it’s a friend, neighbour or co-worker. These heart-breaking findings should make us all think about the ramified difficulties addiction entails. Despite research, scientific advancements and more media attention than ever before, 44% of respondents think addiction to an opioid is a sign of weak willpower, a lack of discipline or a moral flaw.  Even more so, a staggering 55% would be in favour of severe measurements to be taken against people who abuse drugs. Almost 90 years down the line and even with evidence staring right in our faces, there’s still a lot more convincing and educating that needs to be done.

In Canada, one in eight people have a friend or relative who has become dependent on opioids in the last five years, according to a new findings from the Angus Reid Institute. The poll which looked at over 5,000 respondents also revealed that one in five people have been themselves prescribed a powerful pain killer, putting them at risk of misuse and addiction. Similarly, nearly 5.8 million Canadians aged at least 12 years old are classified as heavy drinkers and over 47,000 deaths are attributed to substance abuse annually.

Addiction is very similar to chronic illnesses, such as heart disease for example. Both disturb the typical, healthy functioning of the underlying organ, expose the client to devastating risks, and at the same time can be prevented and treated, but if left unaddressed, they will affect the rest of the person’s life and increase the risk of early mortality.

Much like heart disease which silently kicks off during childhood and adolescence and then develops over the years, the drug use danger zone peaks between 16 and 17 years old, but it is not uncommon for 12-15 years old to experiment with at least one substance. The Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey is the longest ongoing survey of young Canadians in grades 7 through 12 and one of the biggest in the world. The latest one published in 2017 has surveyed a total of 11,435 students on their past year experiences with alcohol, tobacco, illicit drugs and prescription medicines.

In line with adult population figures, findings concluded that alcohol was in the lead across both male and female of all grades mentioned, with over 42% having had at least a couple of drinks. And it gets worse, among 9 to 12 graders: 14% said they drank hazardously in the past year, 16% could not recall what happened when they got drunk on at least one occasion and 8% were injured or injured someone else because of this. Probably another shocking thing to learn was that 27% of respondents said they are permitted to drink at home with their friends. These results alone should raise a lot of concern.

Research has demonstrated that the earlier a child starts to consume alcohol, the higher the chances of developing an addiction. Moreover, drinking at a young age can have irreparable health consequences, particularly due to the fact that their bodies are in the midst of development. It is important to address addiction as early as possible to minimize future risks.

Cannabis is the next drug in the top after alcohol. 19% of Canadian students report having tried it at least once between 2016 and 2017, and as result of that, 2% say they are experiencing symptoms of addiction. Another shocking discovery was that one in ten (10.6%) students polled have used opioid pain relievers and more than 9% of them have tried getting kicks from cough medication. Regarding other illicit drugs, the study focused on young Canadians’ responses in grades 9-12 and they revealed that 4% have tried magic mushrooms, 3.4% have had ecstasy (MDMA) and 2.7% have used sedatives, at least once in the run up to 2017.

As a result of all these habits, one is seven students report symptoms of a drug use problem. That is almost 110,000 young Canadians that are more or less suffering in silence in need of support, or in worse cases, they continuously put themselves in life-threatening situations. Also important to stop upon and reflect is the fact that 3,800 Canadians in grades 9-12 have been in a treatment because of their substance abuse. There are few things more shattering than imagining a child going through detox and rehab, or endangering themselves, their friends, families and communities.

Nevertheless, just like dealing with a heart condition, appropriately addressing the problem and managing the symptoms as well as working to prevent it from recurring, addiction should be approached similarly. Fortunately, drug rehabilitation in Canada is among the best in the world.

A new national survey conducted by  the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction studying recovery from drug and alcohol addiction has revealed encouraging results. Conducted online and involving 855 Canadian men and women who went through recovery, the study emphasized that getting clean is much easier than many would think, with the main hurdles being in terms of lack of support, information or financial resources. More than half of participants (54% respectively 51%) said they experienced no barriers in keeping up with the recovery plan as well as avoid having a single relapse.

The latest available Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction report published in 2017 looked at addiction treatment as seen through the eyes of 150,222 unique individuals.  The vast majority (92%) accessed publicly funded treatments for their substance abuse and 8% did so for a friend or a family member. Nearly 64% of Canadians who accessed recovery services were males and as expected the primary drug abuses for which they seek treatment were alcohol, cannabis, opioids and cocaine. These figures do not include private rehab services which makes the learnings even more dismaying.  If we were to round them all up the numbers would reach millions and it’s not just the person who’s battling the addiction, it’s their family and close friends who also get affected in the process.

Can addiction be cured? This is a question that’s floating around many people’s minds. Exactly like a chronic disease, the aim of the treatment is to be symptom-free and go on to live healthy and productive lives. It takes medication, therapy and lifestyle changes to do it, just like you would with a heart condition. And just like that, if the treatment plan is interrupted, the symptoms will reappear.

What numerous people fail to understand is that once a person is addicted, the drugs are not used to make them feel good, they are used to make them feel normal. Science has demonstrated that consistently using a drug, whatever it may be, leads to tolerance and severely limits a person’s capacity to feel any pleasure at all. Because the first couple of times a drug is being used it floods the brain with dopamine, over time that effect is diminished. That sadly means that not only the brain’s reward centre will be far less responsive to drugs, but also to typical activities that individuals used to enjoy prior to their drug addiction. Imagine going to a concert to see an artist which has been a lifelong dream, only to find yourself unable to focus and enjoy the experience without a stimulant.

Addiction has a chronic nature – meaning relapse is not only a possibility, but it’s likely to happen. To put things into perspective even more, the rates of relapse are comparable to the ones for other chronic illnesses. In heart disease, hypertension specifically having a relapse has a probability between 50 and 70%, resembling the ones for asthma and just a bit higher than the rates for diabetes. Just like it wouldn’t be the case for these diseases, relapse does not mean treatment failure, it just means the existing plan needs to be revisited and adjusted accordingly.

On the other hand, addiction has been known to co-exist alongside other medical conditions. For example, the National Institute on Drug Abuse has warned that as many as 6 in 10 people living with addiction have at least one other mental health illness such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder or others. It does not necessarily mean one leads to the other, it just shows how important it is to not judge based on biases and understand that many times not addressing these co-occurring issues can sabotage the entire recovery process.

In any given year, about 1 in 5 Canadians experiences a mental health issue or an addiction problem. If we also factor in that 70% of mental illnesses have their onset during childhood and adolescence, it becomes quite obvious how fate is tempted. The more we learn about these patterns and threats, the easier it will be to tackle them.

It is a problem that concerns every single Canadian. In Ontario alone, the burden of mental illness and addiction is 1.5 times higher than all cancers altogether and over 7 times than that of all infectious diseases. Reality is it’s a crisis and as any crisis if not addressed properly and timely, the aftermath will be devastating, costly and irreversible. Even giant Google, which previously stripped rehab-related search terms from its AdWords, is now back to accepting ads from alcohol and drug addiction treatment services, under a much better supervised context. The decision will have an impact on in-person rehab facilities, crisis hotlines, and support groups. It may not seem as a huge effort, but if we think back to survey results which revealed people don’t know where to find information and how to access it, technology should be able to help.

The world finds itself at a unique point in history where we can foster the many benefits of advancements in science to improve the lives of millions. Leveraging these strengths can help lead to a more positive life and improve overall public health, not only in Canada but all around the globe.