Changes in Heroin Use and Treatment for Addiction

By Amy Fry, UK


Abusing a substance such as heroin can be a dangerous path taken by those battling inner demons or have bowed to peer pressure in an unsupportive environment. The drug is extremely addictive, and users will quickly build a tolerance which encourages them to continuously increase their dosage to achieve the same high. Eventually heroin addicts will be required to take the drug just to allow themselves to feel “normal”.

Recent figures from the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse (NTA) demonstrate that the number of heroin users under the age of 35 is decreasing as the drug loses appeal, with more than 33,000 less users recorded in 2010-2011 following the peak of people using heroin in 2005-2006. Whilst this would seem to be good news for the younger generation, the veteran drug users aged 35 and above are continuing to struggle with their addiction as it becomes increasingly difficult to sustain healthy recovery rates for long term users.

Methods of Treatment for Heroin Addiction

When treating a heroin addict, a period of detox is necessary to get the person free from the drug and begin recovery. During this time, the addict will experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms including sweating, restlessness and vomiting. These withdrawal symptoms are the most common cause of relapse in addicts, so rehabilitation combined with cognitive behavioural therapy is recommended. The issue with rehabilitation is that attending drug or alcohol addiction clinics is often unaffordable for the majority of addicts – for example, a particular clinic that recommends a 12 week stay can cost up to $8,500.

Opioid Substitution Therapy (OST) is prescribed via the NHS where addicts are given synthetic heroin medication such as methadone to either help control their cravings without giving the euphoric high that heroin does, or to gradually wean them off the drug. Out of 165,000 addicts currently estimated to be receiving recovery treatment, 150,000 of those have been prescribed substitute medication.Screen shot 2013-04-02 at 11.46.06 PM

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Suggested Changes to the Way that Heroin Addiction Is Treated

Comedian and former drug addict Russell Brand has called for the way that drug dependency is treated to be changed from largely methadone based programmes to abstinence-based recovery schemes. Brand cites his emotional and psychological issues as the catalyst for his drug problems, and believes addressing these problems were key in his recovery rather than being treated as a criminal.

However journalist Peter Hitchens has challenged Brand’s stance on the treatment of addiction, as he sees the notion of addiction as “laughable”, and that people choose to take drugs purely for their own enjoyment. Hitchens has a tough stance on how he believes that drug users should be handled – he believes that drug users would be helped by law enforced punishment, as it would deter them from using illegal substances again.

The National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse (NTA) recently released a report that does slightly echoes Brand’s call to provide support to addicts than just prescribe substitute medication. The report acknowledged that whilst OST is proven to be effective, it is unacceptable to prescribe it to a patient without actively supporting their recovery throughout treatment. Those in the health profession working directly with addicts have been advised to ensure that treatment programmes are dynamic, supportive and allow users to envisage an exit to drug use from the moment that they start treatment.

Paul Hayes, Chief Executive of NTA, states that as the report acknowledges that only a small minority of heroin addicts recover, their ambition for the future will be for the English treatment system to become a world leader in recovery outcomes and ensure that every individual is given the opportunity to leave addiction behind.