The Opioid Crisis: An Italian-American Expert’s ‘Out of the Box’ Opinion

Family, friends, faith and food will see us through.

Dr. John Rosa is a nationally recognized Integrative Medicine expert who was invited to participate in the recent White House Opioid Summit, which sought solutions to our country’s very serious opioid crisis. Dr. Rosa is a member of the Board of Directors of the National Italian American Foundation.

The Italian-American culture is truly not Italian nor is it truly American. It is a culture derived from the necessity to stay close to the family and paesani for support and sense of community. I, as so many others, like to sum up this culture as the four “F”s…Family, Friends, Faith and Food.

Family and friends are terms used loosely in the Italian-American community. As if our families are not large enough with aunts, uncles and cousins by the dozens, we throw in the fictitious family members for the fun of it. It was quite disappointing to find out that Uncle Tommy and Aunt Tina were not really my aunt and uncle but came from the same town my mom came from in Sicily. Community at its best.

Faith is an integral part of this community, with Mass every Sunday, prayers each night, celebration of all the Feasts of the Saints, and don’t forget the parties for every sacrament received by all family and paesani.

Food is the glue that gives celebration and community that extra smile. It is a focal point of getting together in groups or at home. The dinner table is a daily celebration of life and an opportunity to have family “How was your day?” time.

Unfortunately, the new post industrialization society and digital age has given way to lack of family structure and less commitment to faith. This has made it easier for us to feel alone and unhappy. Now, more than ever, we see addiction to work, to Netflix binging, to cell phones, to video games, to portable device apps, to the 24hr news cycle, to porn and to drugs. We selfishly crave instant gratification instead of the delayed gratification derived from dedication to hard work and cultivating meaningful relationships. When you think of how we grew up with a strong identity of culture and community, it is easy to recognize a correlation between loss of cultural and social values and the current addiction crisis.

I would like to put this theory in perspective by giving a quick overview of a Canadian study, published in 1981, known as “Rat Park”. The study evaluated the habits of two environments. The first environment was a single rat placed in a cage with two bottles, one bottle having plain water and the other having water with added morphine. The second environment, called Rat Park, also contained two water bottles, one with and one without added morphine. The difference was the environment. Rat Park housed 16-20 rats, with spin wheels, balls and abundant food. The solitary rat in the first cage developed a preference, over time, for the morphine-laced water and eventually overdosed. In Rat Park, however, the rat community was surrounded by the daily activities of food, fun and intimacy. In Rat Park, most of the rats would only drink once from the morphine-laced bottle and never return. Researchers concluded that in the absence of isolation, the sense of community and will to thrive was a much better reality than the false reality experienced while on the opioid. There is a reason why some people who take a prescription opioid do not like how they feel and others look for the escape.

Now I want to be clear that the lack of community is not the only reason one becomes addicted to opioids. We know that some people, young and old, start taking opioids as a cool way to party or get high and, as a result of overuse, become addicted. For many years doctors have over-prescribed opioids for acute and chronic pain, which has resulted in addiction. Drug dealers are adding much stronger and more addictive opioids to street-sold products that ramp up the addictive process. The point I would like to make is that the more isolated one becomes the more vulnerable to addiction they become.

I currently own/manage 14 Integrative Medicine Clinics in Maryland and Virginia that concentrate on pain management. As an expert in this field, I have dedicated my professional life to helping people avoid the need for pain medication. For 20 years I have experienced firsthand the devastation of the Opioid Crisis through my patient base. I have educated myself and others from every angle of this crisis over the years and continue to lecture, write position papers and consult for local municipalities and the federal government. My specialty is in addiction prevention so I would like to share some thoughts and perspectives with you which, sadly, only scratch the surface of this complex problem.

  • Make children aware that taking opioid prescription drugs recreationally is a path to addiction and death. Just because it was prescribed to someone in their household or a friend’s household by a doctor does not mean it’s okay to take. With this in mind, please immediately go into your medicine cabinets and dispose of all unused medications as 90% of children who start recreational use begin at home.
  • If your doctor prescribes an opioid for non-cancer or nonsurgical pain, ask them for an alternative. In some cases, severe trauma will warrant such meds but this should be the exception.   Millions of opioid prescriptions have been written for common ailments and minor to moderate trauma that could have easily been managed with anti-inflammatories and a good Chiropractor, Physical Therapist or Acupuncturist.
  • Put the phone down, turn off the tablet and computer, leave work at work and sit down to dinner with your family. Whether you call it sauce or gravy, learn how to make it and make enough to invite family, friends and neighbors for some pasta. Celebrate life at every turn, not alone, but with the ones you love. Be thankful to God Almighty for the treasure of life that has been bestowed upon you and thank Him every day while on your knees in prayer at home and on Sundays in church.

There is no easy fix to this multifaceted and complicated problem we call the Opioid Crisis, and I may be biased, but a good start would be to take a page out of the Italian-American playbook. The Italian-American version of “Rat Park” is a community I would never want to change my perception of reality for. Let’s hold on to our heritage and continue to pass down the 4 F’s of Family, Friends, Faith, and Food to the generations to come. It will mean our survival.

This article first appeared in La Nostra Voce, ISDA’s 28-page monthly newspaper, which chronicles Italian life, culture and traditions. Make the pledge and subscribe today!

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