Ask the Psychiatrist: Why Observe International Overdose Awareness Day?

“I’m so passionate about this subject because there are so many stigmas associated with substance use disorders – I hope this information will be enlightening and empowering to you and those you love who are affected by the condition,” says Rachel V.F. Rohaidy, M.D., a board certified psychiatrist at Baptist Health Primary Care and medical director of The Recovery Village at Baptist Health.

Rachel V. F. Rohaidy, M.D., psychiatrist with Baptist health Primary Care and medical director of The Recovery Village at Baptist Health

She’s talking about the subject because today, August 31st, is International Overdose Awareness Day. It was started in Australia nearly 20 years ago to shine a light on the issue of substance use disorders, overdoses and drug-related deaths. “The campaign is simple,” Dr. Rohaidy stresses.  “Overdose is preventable. As mental health professionals, we know that much more can and must be done to save lives.” 

In April 2021, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) estimated that the number of people in the U.S. who died from overdose in the 12-month period ending September 2020 was 90,237. And, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, North America has the highest drug-related mortality in the world. 

“It’s a serious problem that brings untold grief and destruction to families,” Dr. Rohaidy says. “All of us – including medical and mental health professionals – must be educated to understand that substance use disorders are treatable conditions,” she states. “Unfortunately, most of the community looks at substance use as a character flaw, despite the fact we continue to normalize other addictions like cannabis, alcohol and cigarettes.”   

Dr. Rohaidy says a number of patients are deterred from seeking treatment for substance abuse because they’re either ashamed of their illness or afraid of the preconceived notions many people have of such disorders. “Substance abuse is not a character flaw – it’s a real medical condition in which we can actually identify changes in the metabolism of the patient’s brain,” she says. “As such, it should be treated like any other medical condition.”

Unfortunately, admits Dr. Rohaidy, patients with “acceptable” medical conditions tend to be treated well while those with substance abuse disorders often are treated like criminals.

“We categorize substance abusers as bad people, and our policies on drugs mark them as such and contribute to the stigma,” Dr. Rohaidy observes. As a result, she says, only 18 percent of people with substance abuse disorders seek treatment. “This impedes both access to care and quality of care, which is why I’m so passionate about erasing those preconceived notions,” she says.

Substance abuse affects everyone

Substance abuse is not a one-person disorder – everyone is affected by it, according to Dr. Rohaidy. “We used to think that the people who live on the street, or those who are in and out of jail were the substance abusers, but that’s not true,” she says. “Substance abusers can be upper or middle class, male or female, young or even the elderly. Many of the patients I treat are over 65.”

People who have experienced trauma or who are anxious or depressed are at higher risk of developing substance abuse disorders, says Dr. Rohaidy, who adds that the gravity of the pandemic has increased their risk ten-fold. “I don’t know of anyone who hasn’t been affected by the pandemic,” she says. “It’s affected every one of us in some way and, now more than ever, we have to be aware of the possibilities and consequences of substance abuse.”

Dr. Rohaidy says she hopes that by focusing on awareness of substance abuse, International Overdose Awareness Day can help give people a better understanding of the disorder and, perhaps, help them recognize and deal with it in their own lives and families.

Help is always there if needed

According to Dr. Rohaidy, numerous resources exist that can be very empowering and supportive by giving people a chance to connect with others in a similar situation. Groups such as Families Anonymous, Al-Anon, Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous offer support for the patient and the family, she says, and are very helpful.

Inpatient and outpatient treatment programs such as those offered at The Recovery Village at Baptist Health are also highly effective, says Dr. Rohaidy. “We’re extremely focused on individualized patient care and work to treat both the client and their family,” she says of the Center, which has locations in Miami and Palm Beach.

Because addiction is such a complex disease, therapists at The Recovery Village provide highly focused treatment tailored to each individual patient. “The aim is to uncover and treat the roots of addiction, including trauma, family history and other co-occurring conditions,” Dr. Rohaidy says. “Our expert clinical and medical staff offers thoughtful and caring support during each stage of the process as clients learn and apply new skills for lasting recovery,” she adds.

A last resort, Dr. Rohaidy says, are drugs such as Narcan, which is what police and first responders carry to treat victims who have overdosed from drugs like heroin, oxycodone, hydrocodone and morphine. “I hope you or a loved one never needs it,” she says. “Even if the victim is lucky enough to survive, an overdose affects the entire family dynamic and can have long-lasting consequences.”

Taking care of yourself

Dr. Rohaidy recommends incorporating health habits into your daily life, such as exercise, good sleep hygiene, eating well, taking care of what goes into your body, drinking lots of water and avoiding unhealthy behaviors. “By taking care of yourself every day, you’re far less likely to fall into patterns of self-destructive behavior associated with substance abuse.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, Dr. Rohaidy advises reaching out to a medical professional. “Talk to your primary care physician or therapist about what’s going on,” she suggests. “They can help identify the appropriate resources that can help you jump-start your recovery.”

For patients concerned about COVID-19 and in-person appointments, Dr. Rohaidy says that telemedicine platforms such as Baptist Health Care On Demand have made it easier than ever to connect with Baptist Health physicians experienced in substance abuse, addiction and other disorders.

“Over the past year and a half, with the pandemic, telemedicine platforms have become a necessary and extremely convenient way for many people to get the treatment they need,” Dr. Rohaidy says. “That’s especially true for clients seeking help for substance abuse or any type of mental health counseling. Many clients prefer to do their sessions remotely from the comfort and privacy of their own home.”

Healthcare that Cares

With internationally renowned centers of excellence, 12 hospitals, more than 27,000 employees, 4,000 physicians and 200 outpatient centers, urgent care facilities and physician practices spanning across Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward and Palm Beach counties, Baptist Health is an anchor institution of the South Florida communities we serve.

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