As the federal government begins to distribute the $1 billion authorized by the 21st Century Cures Act to expand treatment of opioid use disorders nationwide, it's important for states and healthcare providers to remember that "pain" is at the center of this national epidemic. Not just the pain of lost loved ones, broken families and withdrawal symptoms—but the pain that leads so many to use opioids in the first place. The pain that so often complicates treatment and recovery. A Panacea for Pain While we have ample evidence that opioid misuse and addiction remains a huge crisis, we can't forget that this problem started almost 20 years ago when the medical community began to more aggressively treat pain. The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, in their analysis of data from the 2000-10 National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey (NAMCS), discovered that, although there was no overall change in the amount of pain that Americans reported, the amount of prescription opioids sold in that time-frame nearly quadrupled. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported similar findings. Just this month, we've seen three startling confirmations that the epidemic has only grown worse, especially as the market has been flooded with cheap heroin and illicitly made fentanyl—"street" opioids that have a similar effect on the mind and body as prescription painkiller varieties like Percocet, morphine, Oxycontin and Vicodin. A national survey by the Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation found that one-third of Americans who have taken prescription opioids for at least two months say they became addicted to, or physically dependent on, the powerful painkillers. The CDC released new data revealing that overdose deaths involving opioids increased yet again in 2015, to roughly 33,000—up from 29,000 in 2014 and by far the biggest contributor to the record 52,000 drug overdoses overall last year. Thanks in part to the rise in overdose deaths, life expectancy fell in the U.S. last year for the first time since the AIDS epidemic. Yes, it's clear we have a problem. And the new federal funding for states wanting desperately to save lives is long overdue. What can be done? The CDC highlights three essential tasks: Improve and ultimately reduce opioid prescribing Expand opioid addiction treatment (including the use of medications like buprenorphine) Reduce access to illicit opioids like heroin (by prosecuting dealers for the deaths of clients, for example) Along with those listed, I propose an additional, equally important task: Help people understand the importance of addressing their pain rather than trying to eliminate it. Until we do this, the desire to avoid pain will be met by continuous searches for the next panacea. Pain: A Challenge of the Body, Mind & Spirit Pain, both physical and emotional, is essential in letting us know that something is out of balance and needs our attention. The discomfort of pain serves as a motivator toward healing. For example, acute physical pain calls our attention to a new injury, which, if ignored or numbed, can lead to further damage. Chronic pain—which has multiple dimensions—challenges us to attend to body, mind and spirit in order to deal with our pain and lead meaningful lives. It was promising to see a recent National Institutes of Health review that found non-drug, mind-body treatments like yoga, tai chi and acupuncture to be effective in the treatment of chronic pain. Emotional pain, often an aspect of chronic pain, is usually the result of a "disconnect" within ourselves or with others. When one loses a meaningful relationship, the pain is there because someone mattered and touched our lives. I have worked with many young adults who have lost a parent either through death or abandonment. They acknowledge how using opioids numbed them to the depth of their pain—at least temporarily. Although this pain will never disappear, they begin to understand that the pain is directly proportional to the love they experienced or for which they longed. Many young adults dealing with an opioid addiction see themselves as alone and unworthy of acceptance. When they believe they are unlovable and incapable of having intimacy with others, they withdraw, which only fuels the depth of their internal pain. Yet, when they have the courage to address such beliefs—and acknowledge their desire to connect with others and belong—they begin to heal and grow emotionally. Although the pain may remain, it is lessened when they reach out to others to receive and give support. Over the past decade, I have worked with thousands of young adults who have an opioid use disorder. I commonly hear that opioids provide an immediate escape from all physical and, especially, emotional pain. Many have spoken of a deep fear in facing the pain within them. And, the reality is, this is not an easy task. Pema Chödrön, in her book The Places That Scare You, writes, "I think our first response to pain—ours or someone else's—is to self-protect." We want to avoid it at all costs. But the irony is that avoiding it never lessens our pain and, in most cases, actually intensifies it. I have walked alongside many who have had the courage to begin to name their pain. In so doing, they have experienced support and understanding from others with similar stories. They experience this as difficult and frightening work. At the same time, they are surprised to discover when they commit to the work, and have support, that they are no longer consumed by the depth of their pain. They discover an inner strength that is nurtured by the courage of others who, like them, have been willing to face their pain. They begin to realize that there is a significant difference between being a victim of their pain—whether physical or emotional—and finding courage, strength and support through speaking about this pain. Our nation must continue to address the devastation caused by this opioid epidemic. As we follow the CDC's expert guidance by improving opioid prescribing, expanding treatment and reducing access to illegal opioids, let us also focus on the importance of addressing pain—not just in addiction treatment, but throughout our culture and in our individual lives. Dr. Jeannine Leonard is a spiritual care professional who works with adolescents and young adults at Hazelden in Plymouth, Minnesota.