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Heroin Use On The Rise In Young, White Men

Dr. Anna Pickering

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Anna Pickering

April 3, 2019

Heroin use has long plagued our nation. But recent research shows that heroin abuse is targeting a new demographic: young, white men. Overall, heroin use disorders rose the most within white users ages 18-44. Numerous factors are suspect in this increase, with the non-medical use of prescription opioid painkillers standing out as a driving force.

Heroin was once thought to be a drug of back alleyways far from the average American’s home. Published this March in JAMA Psychiatry, these findings further illustrate that heroin is increasingly becoming a problem in all walks of life. Despite this, the study did show that certain groups of people were hit particularly hard.

Research was conducted by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and focused on the decade between 2001-2002 and 2012-13. Columbia reports that “increases were greatest among males, whites, those with low income and little education, and for heroin use disorder, in younger individuals.”

What Is Heroin?

Heroin is an opioid drug. It is derived from morphine which comes from the opium poppy. Heroin is delivered as a white or brownish powder or as black tar heroin which appears as its name suggests. Heroin drug abusers choose to administer the drug either by injecting, smoking, or snorting it. Each of these ways holds the potential for abuse and addiction, though some forms carry additional dangers. Injection drug users face increased risks for certain serious transmittable diseases, infections and scarring at the injection site, and more.

Heroin users seek a rush or sense of euphoria. This results from the way the drug attaches to receptor sites in the brain, creating an overflow of dopamine. Dopamine creates feelings of reward and pleasure. In the short term, users may exhibit flushed skin, itching, vomiting, and nausea, to name a few symptoms. They may also alternate from wakeful to drowsy states and experience impaired thinking.

With prolonged use, various organ systems may become damaged or diseased. Heroin abuse and addiction can upend a person’s emotions, relationships, finances, job, and/or educational pursuits. The most serious risks are addiction, brain damage, coma, overdose, and death.

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How Has Heroin Impacted Young, White Men?

This study shines light on a widening gender gap in the world of heroin abuse. Heroin use in men was over double that of women, with a 1.89 percentage point and .70 percentage point increase, respectively. In respect to heroin use disorders, the gap was at a 0.72 percent increase for men versus women at .25 percent.

Columbia quoted a second study author, Deborah Hasin, PhD, who cautions that “these trends are concerning because increases are occurring among vulnerable individuals who have few resources to overcome problems associated with use.” Keep in mind, poor individuals with less education were more heavily impacted by this drug. This includes young, white men of this background.

In 2016, The New York Times put our country’s drug abuse into an even more troubling context. They reported that in 2014, after mostly rising for decades, the life expectancy for white Americans began to decline. Within the article, a Dr. Elizabeth Arias spoke on this, asserting that drug overdoses were among the main factors which led to this decline.

Heroin overdoses have more than quadrupled since 2010, according to the CDC. Again, young men (ages 25-44) were especially afflicted, having experienced the highest heroin death rate in 2015. In this year, these deaths rose 22.2 percent from 2014.

What Factors Caused This Increase?

In regard to young, white men, this increase stems largely from the same factors which influence the heroin epidemic overall. Most experts agree that our nation’s prescription opioid drug crisis largely fuels the growing rates of heroin abuse. Prescription opioids affect the brain in a way very similar to heroin, including how they echo the addictive potential.

The number of prescriptions for these types of painkillers has skyrocketed, making these drugs more accessible on the illicit market. But prescription opioid drugs can be quite expensive. This leads many who get hooked to look for a cheaper alternative. This is where heroin steps in. Heroin is a cheaper fix, and in many cases, it is easier to obtain. But beyond this lies another factor.

While heroin use was once widely stigmatized, this perception is dangerously changing. One of the study’s authors, Silvia Martins, MD, PhD asserts that “because the effects of heroin seem so similar to widely available prescription opioids, heroin use appears to have become more socially acceptable among suburban and rural whites.” In a Washington Post article, Martins referenced this connection again, noting that at the beginning of the study “only 36 percent of white heroin users reported they had already used prescription opioids before,” whereas by the end, 53 percent made this claim.

Another JAMA publication from 2014 sheds even more light on this frightening trend. This study collected information on treatment-seeking heroin abusers. It found that “nearly 90% of respondents who began use in the last decade were white.”

How Do You Get Help For Heroin Abuse And Addiction?

Due to heroin’s high potential for abuse and addiction, we highly recommend that you seek professional help if you want to quit using. Don’t be ashamed. Addiction is not a fault of your character, it’s a disease. A heroin addiction is extremely difficult to beat on your own. Due to the severity of it, inpatient drug rehab is often the best choice. A variety of programs even offer men’s only programs. Many of these offer other exciting and engaging treatment options like wilderness or adventure based therapies and treatment.

This drug’s chemical hold on your brain and body is intense. Because of this, withdrawal can become very overwhelming, uncomfortable, painful, and even dangerous. To decrease this discomfort and to address these risks, a medical detox should be your first step towards sobriety.

Medication-Assisted Therapy (MAT)

Due to the way heroin addiction changes your brain chemistry, various pharmacotherapies (medications) may be used. These may be used to decrease the severity of withdrawal and cravings during detox or as a maintenance medication within recovery. Evidenced-based medications for treating heroin and other opioids include:

  • Buprenorphine (Suboxone, Subutex, Zubxolv)
  • Methadone
  • Naltrexone (Vivitrol)

Ideally, these medications should be a part of medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for the maximum effect.

Implemented during both detox and treatment, MAT pairs these and other medications with behavioral therapies to provide whole-person care. As we noted, detox is best viewed as only one part of a comprehensive treatment plan. We strongly suggest that you follow up detox with individualized treatment. Recovery from heroin won’t be easy. But a good rehab staffed with expert care can make the difference. This support can make this transition more comfortable and less stressful.

Let Us Help You Build A Personalized Treatment Plan

Are you watching your son, brother, husband, or another loved one lose themselves to the destructive powers of heroin? If so, you don’t have to shoulder this burden alone. can help you find treatment options which best serve your loved one’s specific needs. If you’re the one struggling with the addiction, we can help you too. Our staff is equipped with countless resources on detox, treatment, financing, family support, and more. Don’t hesitate, contact us today.

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