According to the National Institute of Health, an estimated three million people suffer from opioid addictions in the United States. In fact, an article in the journal PLOS Medicine found that prescription opioid misuse has become a leading cause of accidental injury and death for adolescents and young adults, largely due to drug overdose.

Sadly, the opioid epidemic that has affected the country is taking a serious toll on young people, their mental health and their lifetime outcomes. Here’s what you need to know about opioid addictions so you can find healing and the recovery you need.

How an opioid addiction develops

Heavy substance use leads to changes in the brain’s reward, memory and learning centers. Opioids, prescription or illicit, cause the brain to release large amounts of dopamine into the region of the brain called the nucleus accumbens. When this occurs, the hippocampus records the memory of the pleasure produced and the environmental cues that are present.

Then, the amygdala, which is associated with learning behaviors, creates a conditioned response to the environmental cues (in this case, the drug and other factors that are present, such as the feeling of loneliness or a friend you use with). This response creates cravings for opioids, even those that are prescribed.

While prescription opioids can be useful for those who face chronic pain or are recovering from surgery, they can also be easily misused. Over time, substance use can become compulsive as the body and brain both crave the pleasurable feeling that comes with substance use, ignoring the negative consequences.

When opioid use goes unchecked, a tolerance to the drug and its effects can develop, quickly leading to an addiction as person requires more and more of the drug to feel the same effects. An opioid addiction can develop for many reasons, and rarely does addiction stem from a single cause. Like mental health, an interconnected web of risk factors combine to make an individual vulnerable to an opioid use disorder.

Opioids and young adults

Young adults develop addictions for a variety of reasons, including self-medication to relieve pain, as a coping mechanism to deal with stress and in an effort to relax or spend time with friends. Typically, there are underlying causes that contribute to vulnerability in these scenarios.

A young adult may be affected by these risk factors.

  • History of trauma
  • Chronic stress (including poverty, childhood abuse, discrimination, etc)
  • Family dysfunction
  • Young adult mental health issues (like anxiety, depression or eating disorders)
  • Poor coping skills and negative thought patterns

There is a high correlation between young adult mental health issues and opioid use, and either can lead to the other. Opioid addiction will inevitably cause psychological distress and mental illness can surely be a trigger for a person to seek opioids to handle emotional pain.

Addressing both the addiction and the underlying origins of opioid misuse is necessary to untangle the roots of an addiction and find permanent healing.

Signs of an addiction to prescription opioids

According the the National Institute of Health, the following behaviors are signs that you or a young adult in your life is struggling with an addiction to illicit or prescription opioids.

  • Requiring more of a drug to feel the same effects (increasing dose)
  • Desiring to cut back on use
  • Difficulty controlling to urge to use
  • Excessive effort put forth to obtain or use opioids
  • Use of opioids interferes with other obligations like work or family life
  • Used of opioids in dangerous situations
  • Decreased participation in activities that used to be enjoyable
  • Continued use despite negative consequences
  • A building tolerance to the drug
  • Withdrawal symptoms after usage

If you are unsure whether your use of opioids has spiraled from prescription use into a full-fledged addiction, it’s best to get an assessment from a medical or mental health professional. A professional opinion can help you recognize your behaviors and symptoms from an unbiased perspective.

Treating opioid addiction

Even the most severe cases of opioid addiction and dependence are treatable. The first line of treatment for substance use is professional therapy and medication-assisted treatment, or MAT. Treating opioid use disorders with MAT helps to reduce cravings, reduce opioid-related deaths, improve social functioning and increase retention in treatment.

Medication-assisted treatment

MAT for opioid addiction and dependence restores normal brain functioning during recovery so a person can focus on building the skills needed to avoid relapse and create a lifestyle that supports sobriety. There are numerous medications approved by the Food and Drug Administration for MAT, including methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone.


In addition to MAT, counseling can decrease the relapse rate for opioid addiction by providing a holistic approach and individualized assistance that medication alone can’t offer. A variety of therapeutic techniques can be applied, but talk-therapy, or psychotherapy, is the most common. Therapy will always include a treatment plan and concrete goals for sobriety.

Treatment for opioid use and co-occurring young adult mental health issues will generally include the following.

  • Identifying harmful thought and behavior patterns and developing healthier replacement behaviors
  • Developing strategies for coping with cravings, stress, negative emotions, and other relapse triggers
  • Addressing the complex issues underlying the addiction (such as trauma)
  • Working to repair damaged relationships and restore function to the family system
  • Learning to find enjoyment outside of substance use
  • Identifying inherent strengths and values and using them to find purpose

Opioid addiction is a complex issue that impacts every area of life. Finding the right treatment can improve young adult mental health and lifetime outcomes for those most vulnerable. Reach out to Silvermist Recovery to learn more about potentially life-saving services for prescription opioid misuse.