Science vs. the Opioid Crisis: The HEAL Initiative

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Image courtesy of NIH.

Americans’ misuse of opioids is a national health crisis. There were more than 42,000 drug overdose deaths involving opioids in 2016. (Remember, opioids can be prescription pain relievers or illegal drugs like heroin.)

However, there’s a good reason to believe things may improve: Science is taking on the opioid crisis.

The HEAL Initiative

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently announced an initiative called Helping to End Addiction Long-term, or HEAL. It’s a massive plan involving many of the NIH Institutes (including NIDA) and other U.S. health agencies. The HEAL Initiative has two major goals:

  • Improve treatments for opioid misuse and addiction, so fewer people develop opioid use disorders or die from an overdose.
  • Improve ways to help people manage long-term pain, so they’re less likely to need prescription opioid pain relievers.

New treatments and more

To reach these goals, NIDA is stimulating some new research. It includes:

  • Developing new treatments for addiction and new ways to reverse an overdose.
    • For instance, naloxone can reverse an overdose from prescription opioids and heroin. Scientists are now trying to develop other medicines that can better reverse overdoses of stronger opioids like illegally produced fentanyl.
  • Learning how communities can work together to prevent and treat opioid addiction.
    • Researchers will try to coordinate care in communities hard-hit by the opioid crisis. This includes better coordination of different parts of the community, including health care, the justice system, and first responders like fire departments and emergency medical services.
  • Expanding the use of clinical trials to discover new treatments for addiction.
    • A clinical trial means doing research with people. NIDA will expand its Clinical Trials Network, so more people will have access to studies that test new medicines and other therapies for opioid addiction. This should help people in many rural areas, where it may be hard to access treatment.
  • Improving access to high-quality addiction treatment in justice settings.
    • Behaviors and decisions related to drug use are major reasons people get arrested. Researchers will work with people in jails, prisons, and other justice settings to find out what strategies help most as these people try to improve their situations, including getting treatment for their opioid use problems.   

The NIH HEAL Initiative and its research are happening right now. We’ll keep you posted on the results.

Learn more: A fire chief’s compassionate response to the opioid crisis.

Find Help Near You

Use the SAMHSA Treatment Locator to find substance use or other mental health services in your area. If you are in an emergency situation, this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: call 1-800-273-TALK, or visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. We also have step by step guides on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member.

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