Nationwide opioid addiction and overdose epidemic impacts Chicago Jewish communities

The Jewish Women’s Foundation is learning more about how this sweeping epidemic is affecting the Jewish community, and specifically women and older adults. 

Opioid addiction and overdose is affecting communities across the country, including Chicago's Jewish community. The Jewish Women's Foundation is learning more about how this sweeping epidemic is affecting the Jewish community, and specifically women and older adults.

At a recent meeting, JWF's Advocacy Committee trustees heard from Beth Fishman, manager of the Jewish Center for Addiction, a program of Jewish Child and Family Services. Fishman's presentation was entitled, "The Monster in the Medicine Cabinet: Opiates Among Us." 

"Why the Monster? I wish I could say it's hyperbole, but it's truly not," Fishman said. "I could go on for hours with horrible scary statistics about opioids and the epidemic we are experiencing." 

Since 2000, according to Fishman, the number of opioid deaths has quadrupled. Between 2013 and 2014, overdose deaths involving prescription opioids increased by 80 percent. 

Opioids are more commonly known as prescription pain pills such as Norco, OxyContin, Percocet, and Vicodin. Another more potent opioid, Fentanyl, recently made headlines when Prince died from an overdose of it.

"Fentanyl is 100 times more powerful than heroin." Fishman said. "What's important to know about Fentanyl is that it's being cut into heroin more and more often at higher and higher concentrations these days." 

Heroin, like Morphine and Codeine, is an opiate. They are nearly the same chemically as opioids, but they are naturally derived from the opium poppy, as opposed to being synthetic. 

"Sometimes we think, well heroin is the illegal drug and Codeine is a legal drug so there must be something really different about them," explained Fishman, " But there's really not." 

Because heroin provides a similar type of high as prescription pills, people who become addicted to opioids sometimes turn to the illicit drug because of access and price. 

"One pill can be $25 or more. It's very expensive," Fishman said. " Someone who needs to be taking an opioid several times a day probably can't afford a pill habit, but they can afford a heroin habit because it can cost as little as $2 a bag. " 

According to statistics provided by Fishman, from 2010 to 2013 heroin overdose deaths among women tripled, and from 1999 to 2010 prescription overdose deaths among women rose 400 percent.

Because women are more likely than men to suffer from chronic pain, they are also more likely to be prescribed opioid pain medication and to be given higher doses for longer periods of time. These conditions can lead to dependence and addiction.  

For older women, opioid addiction can affect other health issues as well. For instance, it can cause an inability to control diet and exercise in a patient who is diabetic. For other older women who may be taking additional medication, the interaction with opioids can cause dizziness that leads to falling, which can cause a debilitating injury and loss of independent living. Fishman says the strong desire to remain in their homes serves as a motivating factor for older adults who seek treatment, and they tend to be successful there. 

But Fishman said education of older adults can provide them with the necessary tools to avoid becoming dependent on substances in the first place, especially since so many are what she calls "unintentional addicts."  

"Older adults really need more education about the medication they are being prescribed, about the risk factors, how to notice if they are becoming physically dependent on the medication, and then what to do about it. "

Fishman and her colleagues at the Jewish Center for Addiction: Prevention, Help and Hope (JCA) -- made possible by a generous grant support from JUF and funded by the Michael Reese Health Trust) -- have created a program specifically on this education for older adults. 

As for the Jewish factor when it comes to opioid addiction, Fishman said this community is affected in a similar way as the general population. 

"In the United States, about 10 percent of the population is addicted to some kind of drug. And we know from the best data we have that the Jewish community is really no different than the American community as a whole," she explained. "About 10 percent of Jews are also struggling with drug addiction." 

The populations being hit the hardest by the opioid epidemic are white, older adolescents and young adults living in rural and suburban areas. 

"We are losing young Jewish individuals to opioid overdose on a regular basis on the North Shore and in the Northwest suburbs," Fishman said. "It's just devastating."

The Jewish Women's Foundation Advocacy Committee is currently working on next steps for what they can do to help inform the Jewish community about this devastating crisis.  

"Members of JWF's Advocacy Committee found the presentation most informative and agreed that we need to do all we can to raise awareness about the opioid epidemic," said JWF Advocacy Chair Susan Rifas. "This starts with educating the Jewish community about the seriousness of opioids and the impact on our friends and families." 

Mimi Sager Yoskowitz is a Chicago-area freelance writer, mother of four, and former CNN producer. Her work has been featured on various sites including Kveller, Brain, Child Magazine, and in the anthology, "So Glad They Told Me."


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