The Good Fight

Chief Medical Officer Marvin D. Seppala, MD, wields science and compassion at the frontlines of the opioid epidemic

Not so long ago, the word "opioid" rarely appeared outside of medical journals. Today, it's the stuff of headline news, political debates, and even Super Bowl commercials—synonymous with "prescription painkillers," "heroin," and "epidemic."

Marvin D. Seppala, MD, foretold the crisis in our midst more than a decade ago in two books he co-wrote for Hazelden Publishing: When Painkillers Become Dangerous and Pain-Free Living for Drug-Free People. In 2010, Seppala co-authored Prescription Painkillers: History, Pharmacology, and Treatment, a thoroughly prescient guidebook to the current situation.

"Earlier warnings about the risks of overprescribing opioid medications were largely ignored," Dr. Seppala reflects.

"Patients just didn't believe pain relievers prescribed by their physicians could be unsafe. And the medical profession seemed to forget lessons from the ‘70s and ‘80s about the dangers of treating chronic pain with opioids."

The result? An unprecedented surge in the number of Americans becoming addicted to opioids and dying from overdose.

Since 2001, the nation's addiction treatment centers have seen a 500 percent increase in admissions for prescription drug addiction.* Drug overdose now ranks as the leading cause of accidental death in the United States.**

"If any other illness caused such devastation, the demand for answers and action would have been swift and forceful," Dr. Seppala suggests. "But addiction remains poorly understood and overtly stigmatized, both among the general public and within the medical community."

As chief medical officer for the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, Dr. Seppala led the organization's clinical initiatives to develop treatment protocols targeting opioid addiction. The approach combines evidence-based treatments using medications and the Twelve Steps. Through his work with colleagues at the Hazelden Betty Ford Institute for Recovery Advocacy, Dr. Seppala has taken the fight to another level: Capitol Hill.

In April of 2015, Dr. Seppala testified before a congressional subcommittee charged with gathering information about the opioid epidemic. He helped lawmakers understand why opioids are so tough to kick, what makes the drugs so lethal, and how overprescribing pain medications fuels the deadly disaster.

"Individuals who are dependent on opioids face unique challenges that can undermine their ability to remain in treatment and ultimately achieve longterm abstinence," he explains. "Anxiety, depression, and intense craving for these drugs can continue for months, even years, after getting free of opioid use."

These dynamics create a high risk for relapse, accidental overdose, and death during relapse. When people with opioid dependence stop using—for days, weeks, or even years—then pick up again, their tolerance for the drug changes so that an amount they could previously tolerate can become a lethal dose.

It's a human tragedy playing out every hour of every day across America.

The Hazelden Betty Ford Institute for Public Advocacy has become a leading voice in urgent national discussions about the opioid epidemic, promoting action on multiple fronts. Initiatives focus on increasing public education, expanding opioid addiction treatment access, reforming criminal justice processes, and improving medication labeling. Training for physicians, dentists, and pharmacists tops the list.

"At the center of this problem is overprescribing," Dr. Seppala states. "Doctors didn't start overprescribing opioids out of malicious intent but rather out of a desire to relieve pain and suffering."

Recovering Hope

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"We are dedicated to promoting the health and wellness of young adults, and partnering with the Hazelden Betty Ford Institute for Recovery Advocacy brings real science and authenticity to our efforts. Through our recent focus on the prevalence of opioid use, we educated college students, administrators, and policymakers alike."
Marjorie Malpiede, executive director, Mary Christie Foundation

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By the Numbers icon
>In 2015, the Hazelden Betty Ford Institute for Recovery Advocacy:

  • Hosted two Capitol Hill policy symposiums on the opioid crisis, drawing more than 400 attendees and featuring remarks by nine members of Congress and the White House director of National Drug Control Policy;

  • Sponsored a breakfast for more than 500 Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill participants, kicking off the largest advocacy presence ever in the halls of Congress on the issues of addiction prevention, treatment, and recovery;

  • Convened Minnesota's first statewide summit on the opioid crisis, drawing more than 1,000 attendees and featuring remarks by the Governor, the US Attorney for Minnesota, and three members of Congress; and

  • Hosted, sponsored, or provided speakers for 20 other events focused on the opioid crisis or other recovery policy issues.

> Under the direction of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation Speaker's Bureau, 105 employees presented to more than 54,800 attendees at 285 events in 24 states on a broad range of addiction prevention, treatment, and recovery issues.

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