A new twist in the evolving opioid epidemic that flared up in regions across the United States a few years ago has clinicians and health professionals like myself hopeful that an end is near. The epidemic, which peaked at claiming 72,000 lives in 2017, has grown to be the number one cause of death amongst Americans under the age of 50, writes the Guardian.

The government has responded with broad spectrum programs to aid communities ravaged by opioids and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services launched a 5-point strategy to combat the crisis. Still, the recent news that a judge in Oklahoma ruled against Johnson & Johnson, a multinational corporation in the medical supplies and big pharma businesses, for their wrong-doing in the opioid crisis, suggests we may be on the path toward recovery.

The court slapped the company with a half-billion dollar fine. District Judge Thad Balkman said, “the state met its burden that the defendants Janssen and Johnson & Johnson’s misleading marketing and promotion of opioids created a nuisance as defined by [the law],” reports CNBC. J & J intends to appeal.

“The company and subsidiary Janssen repeatedly downplayed the risks of addiction to opioids, training sales representatives to tell doctors the risk was 2.6% or less if the drugs were prescribed by a doctor,” the ruling found as reported by CNBC. “Physicians who prescribed a high amount of opioids were targeted as “key customers.””

It’s no surprise a ruling like this has come out in the wash when stories like the one in the New York Times about the number of opioid prescriptions shipped to a small town in Florida underscores the corruption endemic to the issue. According to the article, a Walgreens pharmacy in Port Richey ordered and shipped 3,271 bottles of oxycodone in a month. The catch? The town has a population of 2,831. The math doesn’t add up, just like it didn’t for Johnson & Johnson in documents and emails presented in court proceedings.

J & J isn’t the only one. Lawyers filed in federal court “thousands of documents from corporations across the pharmaceutical and retail industries — internal memos, depositions, sales and shipping reports, experts’ analyses, and other confidential information — for cities, towns and counties devastated by addiction,” Jan Hoffman, Katie Thomas and Danny Hakim write for the Times. “They lay out a detailed case of how diverse corporate interests — far beyond the familiar players like Purdue Pharma— fed a deadly opioid epidemic that persisted for nearly two decades.”

As opioid manufacturers and their subsidiaries and supply chains have their day in court, a glimmer of hope may be in the news that national drug overdose-related deaths dropped for the first time since 1990. This suggests the two-pronged effort – government programs fighting the crisis and drug manufacturers being held accountable and changing their practices – are paying off. I feel encouraged to see folks across various industries and public service outlets working together on this issue.

For behavioral health professionals like myself, we’ve begun new and probing conversations for addressing and treating our clients who may have developed an addiction to these painkillers. Last year, I wrote about how behavioral health folks can open the door to these difficult conversations – in a committed effort to fight addiction dependency. Here are those tips:

  • Meet your client where they are at. We must understand who our clients are, where they come from, their family dynamics, traumas, and their place in the world. The best theory in the world won’t take into account this human element. With unique people, a multitude of cultures, gender expressions and the changes in our genetic diversity, we must embrace difference as a teacher. That way you can help plan a strategy that meets their unique needs.
  • Understand your client’s trauma and talk about it.When we understand and discuss the trauma that took place, we then see how the door was opened to an opioid misuse problem.
  • Be honest with your clients about the facts of opioids. Check out my website to get informed on all the facts.
  • Educate your clients on alternative pain management solutions. Science and development has brought advancement in behavioral therapy. For example, a study published in the journal Addiction in 2016 by a team from the Veterans Administration Ann Arbor Healthcare System’s Center for Clinical Management Research found a non-drug approach that combines behavioral therapy and social support to help manage pain.

As the opioid epidemic crests and hopefully falls, the lessons learned are essential for finding a healthier way forward. We can use this knowledge to build and rebuild communities for future generations.

Louise Stanger with Roger Porter