The Social Life of Opioids

In the story of America’s opioid crisis a recent tripling in prescriptions of the painkillers is generally portrayed as the villain. Researchers and policy makers have paid far less attention to how social losses—including stagnating wages and fraying ties among people—can increase physical and emotional pain to help drive the current drug epidemic.

But a growing body of work suggests this area needs to be explored more deeply if communities want to address the opioid problem. One study published earlier this year found that for every 1 percent increase in unemployment in the U.S., opioid overdose death rates rose by nearly 4 percent.

Overdose is now the nation’s leading cause of death for people in the prime of life. And suicide- and alcohol-related deaths have also risen—most dramatically in regions with the highest levels of economic distress.

Data supporting the link between opioids and bonding has grown. It has been expanded on by researchers including Thomas Insel, former head of the National Institute on Mental Health; Robin Dunbar at the University of Oxford; and Larry Young, professor of psychiatry at Emory University. Dr. Young is a faculty member in the NS and PBEE programs. 

Young showed that oxytocin, a hormone previously linked mostly with labor and nursing, is crucial to the formation of pair bonds as well as bonds between parents and infants.

Click here to view the full story in Scientific American.