On Thursday, students and faculty filled Winants hall to hear Dr. Talal Khan’s lecture: “Addiction, the Addict, and the Opioid Epidemic.” Dr. Khan graduated in 2000 from Dow Medical College in Karachi, Pakistan. He now works as a psychiatrist in Grand Rapids at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services and teaches at MSU’s medical school. He focuses on addiction and neurology. His lecture worked to challenge some of the preconceived notions that many hold about addiction and drug abuse.
Substance abuse has become so prevalent in the lives of Americans that when asked how many have been affected by it either directly or indirectly, practically every hand in the audience went up. Dr. Khan asked for another show of hands: Who believes addiction to be a disease? Who believes it to be a choice? All hands rose to indicate addiction is a disease. Dr. Khan then challenged the crowd. With one person dying from an overdose every 19 minutes, why are we not working to eradicate addictions as we would any other chronic disease?
Unfortunately, the addict is still marginalized. In society, they are viewed as “dirty” or “unsafe.” In the halls of hospitals, they are seen as manipulative and medication-seeking. The conundrum is that addiction typically begins within the doctor’s office. So how did this happen? How is it that the United States houses 80 percent of the world’s opioids? Dr. Khan offered two contributing factors. Americans as a whole have worked to alleviate discomfort and pain to the point that any suffering, physical or emotional, is unbearable. With the numbing effects of a substance, the addict quickly finds him or herself with a new normal that is euphoric. No longer does the natural baseline affect a neutral state. In addition, over prescription of opiates has driven many from clinics to the streets. This occurred in part because doctors’ ratings used to be evaluated based on a client’s self-reported level of pain post- appointment. Luckily, changes have been made to ensure that over-prescription becomes a thing of the past.
Dr. Khan emphasized that not every person who tries a drug will become an addict. A person’s physiology interacts with a substance in a way that is unique to them. Dr. Khan advised that if a history of abuse or dependency runs in your family, it is especially important to stay away from substances. Of course, dependency on a drug can only occur if the reward pathway is stimulated. In short, you have the choice of whether or not you try a substance, but it is out of your control as to when or if you become addicted.
On Thursday, Dr. Khan pushed the Hope community to re-think the way we view an individual with addiction. Addiction is not the accumulation of a person’s wrongdoings, but instead a disease that reels a person in systematically, slowly eroding at one’s judgement and control centers.
One of the more poignant points within his talk was his emphasis on the reality that every encounter with a person suffering from opiate addiction may be your last interaction with the individual. Every addict has a story to tell and it is important to turn towards these people and listen, rather than turn away. Finding empathy, exercising compassion and embracing the person who is struggling to find joy, love and acceptance is your role in this epidemic.