What Science Says To Do If Your Loved One Has An Opioid Addiction

When a family member, spouse or other loved one develops an opioid addiction — whether to pain relievers like Vicodin or to heroin — few people know what to do.

Families are sometimes overwhelmed with conflicting advice about what should come next. Much of the advice given by treatment groups and programs ignores what the data says in a similar way that anti-vaccination or climate skeptic websites ignore science. The addictions field is neither adequately regulated nor effectively overseen. There are no federal standards for counseling practices or rehab programs. In many states, becoming an addiction counselor doesn’t require a high school degree or any standardized training. “There’s nothing professional about it, and it’s not evidence-based,” said Dr. Mark Willenbring, the former director of treatment research at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, who now runs a clinic that treats addictions.

For nearly three decades, I’ve been writing about addiction and drug policy. I’ve dived into the data and written several books on the subject, including an exposé of tough love programs for troubled teens. I’ve also had personal experience: What got me interested in the area was my own struggle with heroin and cocaine addiction in the 1980s.

To try to help sort fact from fiction, I’ve put together an evidence-based guide about what the science of opioid addiction recommends for people trying to help a loved one suffering from addiction. This guide is based on the best research data available in the addictions field right now: systematic reviews, clinical trials of medications and talk therapies, and large collections of real-world data from many countries — all using the highest level of evidence available, based on the standards of evidence-based medicine.

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