Three-Quarters of Americans Are Self-Medicating Pain

America is in the middle of a pain epidemic, we need to stop stigmatizing those who are suffering.

Communities nationwide are struggling with the unprecedented opioid pain pill and heroin addiction epidemic. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

Every day, we see or hear a story about a person who is addicted to drugs or alcohol—and we separate ourselves from them and their behaviors. We even go so far as to give them a name: addicts. Every day, as many as 140 of these mothers, fathers, daughters, and sons die from drug-related causes and we think that this is what addiction brings to its minions. This is just what happens to addicts.

Addiction is never about the drug. If it was, jails would work. Take away the drugs and people would return to a functioning state and their lives would become manageable again. This rarely, if ever, happens. However, if we taught people how to cope with the source of the behaviors, the rest would follow.

If we took a closer and more honest look at the underlying cause of addiction, we would understand that drugs are only one of the many ways that human beings avoid unpleasant feelings. There’s TV, video games, sex, work, relationships, exercise, food, sugar, money, medication, plastic surgery—the list goes on. Any of these things, when done in excess, are problematic.

Two epidemics that presently plague America (which are closely linked but never talked about in the same sentence) are opiate abuse and obesity. Studies show that foods containing high fat and/or high sugar act similarly to cocaine and heroin in the brain. We’re pouring billions of dollars into our healthcare system to combat them each year, to no avail. The number of people addicted to drugs is ever-increasing, as is the percentage of overweight and obese people. Instead of treating the emotional source of these disorders, we continue to treat the behaviors through our healthcare and judiciary systems. This simply isn’t working.

If we took a closer look at the feelings that drive self-destructive behaviors, we would find that many of us go to great measures to avoid the same emotions: pain and the fear of pain. Abandonment, loss, guilt, lack of connection, abuse, rejection, lack of self-esteem, lack of worth, and shame are often the factors that produce self-destructive behaviors of all stripes. People use because they don’t want to feel and don’t know how to deal with the pain. At some point, they took, ate, smoked, shot, or drank something. The euphoria and numbing effect that the behavior or drug brought them overrode their hurt to such an extent that to feel anything less than that high became an uncomfortable thought, and to feel the pain they had momentarily eliminated became a terrifying and intolerable scenario.

We are a culture in the middle of a pain epidemic. Ten percent of adults report having a drug or alcohol addiction at one point in their life; that’s 23.5 million Americans. Studies show that just over two-thirds of our adult population (70.7 percent) are either overweight or obese. If many of these people are using food problematically, it’s possible to say that, combined with the number of people who abuse drugs or alcohol, nearly three-quarters of the population are self-medicating pain. This is a staggering number, and it’s only continuing to grow. We are missing the reasons and the point of these behaviors. Perhaps, for our own protection, we separate, label, and judge instead of recognizing and treating the source. This ignorance is literally killing us.

If we are truly interested in the well-being of our population, we will stop stigmatizing those who are suffering. Today is World Mental Health Day—there’s no better day to talk about this issue, but we should also strive to become more comfortable discussing these difficult topics every other day of the year, too. If we get honest about our own insecurities, perhaps we can begin to create an atmosphere of inclusion. Instead of setting up more hurdles for those in pain by dismissing and dishonoring them, we can realize that their pain must be treated, no matter how it presents itself, with compassion and understanding.

Heather Senior Monroe, MSW, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker. She specializes in treating trauma and its destructive effects on individuals and families. She is the Director of Program Development at Newport Academy.

Three-Quarters of Americans Are Self-Medicating Pain