Dr. Aafaque Akhter shares the story of Opioid Crisis


In recent times, the ‘Opioid Crisis‘ has taken the world by storm. When one says opioid crisis, the immediate questions to come to the mind are, What is it about? What is this opioid dependency so many medical practitioners seem to be talking about?

Today, we have with us Dr. Aafaque Akhter, one of the co-authors of the book Opioid Odyssey which aims at answering all of this and much more.

Dr. Aafaque Akhter, a board-certified psychiatrist and addiction specialist, he is the founder of Norton Health Care, and one of the founders of medication-assisted treatment (MAT). He completed medical school in India, and his post-graduate education in psychiatry in England and in Ireland. For the past 15 years, Dr. Akhter has exclusively practiced medication-assisted treatment (MAT), providing supervision and training to physicians and medical students alike and treating thousands of individuals with opioid use disorder.

Co-written by Dr. Aafaque Akhter and Dr. Michael. J. Murphy, Opioid Odyssey takes us through the journey of opioid addiction telling us how recovery is possible. The book highlights some inspiring stories about addicts who have managed to make a full recovery and stand proudly amongst their communities. This book demystifies the opioid phenomenon and showcases how there is hope despite all the frustration it is surrounded with.


There is a huge Opioid epidemic in the USA since the 1990s. Every day, over a hundred people die in the States due to drug overdose. What compelled you to write a book on the Opioid crisis in the United States?

For decades, as a clinical and forensic psychiatrist, I have been witness to the devastation and pain caused by our so-called opioid epidemic.  I sensed that the whole opioid issue could be handled better, both with more compassion and effectiveness.  As I began treating opioid dependent persons more than  15 years ago, I immediately realized that they are good people, essentially no different from you and me.  By doing a better and more compassionate job of addressing the needs of opioid dependent persons I realized I could make a real positive difference in people’s lives, and isn’t that why we became physicians in the first place?  Over the years as my professional relationship with Dr. Michael Murphy, a forensic psychologist and colleague, grew and as I saw the success of my efforts to help opioid dependent persons, we decided to publish information about what was really working in this area. OPIOID ODYSSEY is the result.

This book presents the human face of the opioid crisis through the personal stories of people who have been touched by addiction. Yet the book has clinical and interpretive material in it. Why did you take this combined approach? Who are the intended readers of this book?

That is a great question.  We, very intentionally have included both, very personal stories of people who have struggled with substance dependence as well as clinical information about what substance dependence really is.  Our purpose is to give to the millions of people who have been deeply affected by the opioid epidemic one volume that will provide them with most if not all that they need to know about this very complex problem.  The intended readers of this book include family members of people who have been affected by the opioid epidemic as well as substance dependent persons themselves and the many hundreds of thousands of professionals and paraprofessionals who provide service to them.  The goal is to change the way that the opioid epidemic is understood, ultimately so that the level of suffering caused by this problem can be reduced or eliminated.


Are there any stereotypes or myths around drug abuse or addicts that you have addressed in this book?

Another great question.  In the area of substance abuse and dependence, unfortunate stereotypes abound.  Many people, both professionals as well as everyday citizens, carry beliefs that substance dependent persons are criminals or psychologically weak people who have created their own problem and therefore deserve to be punished rather than supported and helped.  While there sometimes is a degree of truth to the belief that substance dependent persons have created their own problem, one thing we have learned through decades of experience in treating substance dependence is that punishment doesn’t work.  We need to change both our understanding of the problem as well as our approach to treating the problem.  OPIOID ODYSSEY seeks to contribute to that process.

What is Medical Assisted Treatment and what unique approach have you brought into practice to treat your patients? Has it worked?

Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) is a medical intervention that seeks to provide the substance dependent person with some relief from the pain and suffering of addiction, so that he or she has a chance to return to the level of functioning that they demonstrated before they developed substance dependence. MAT involves taking a medicine under medical supervision and then employing the patient’s innate capacity to live the kind of productive life that they would like to live.  There are some basic principles that we believe will increase the probabilities that MAT will be effective in the long term, and we outline those principles in OPIOID ODYSSEY.  If managed and administered properly, as we have seen at Norton Health Care over 15 years, MAT can be remarkably effective in helping people maintain a high level of functioning for many years.

In the area of substance abuse and dependence, unfortunate stereotypes abound.  Many people, both professionals as well as everyday citizens, carry beliefs that substance dependent persons are criminals or psychologically weak people who have created their own problem and therefore deserve to be punished rather than supported and helped.  While there sometimes is a degree of truth to the belief that substance dependent persons have created their own problem, one thing we have learned through decades of experience in treating substance dependence is that punishment doesn’t work.  We need to change both our understanding of the problem as well as our approach to treating the problem.  OPIOID ODYSSEY seeks to contribute to that process.

One of the most fascinating chapters of the book is the chapter on your own life, Kissed by Two Saints. You started your life against all odds in a small village in India. From those humble origins, you first became a doctor in India and then taught at Harvard, and now you own a chain of specialty clinics and hospitals in the USA. You are a self-made man who has lived the American dream. Tell us briefly about your journey and how you managed to win over your struggles? Are there any life lessons that you would like to share with us?

I deeply appreciate the chapter about my life written by Dr. Murphy. My life has involved taking constructive risks in the interests of learning and gaining professional competence. There certainly have been periods when it appeared the odds were against me but with perseverance and good luck and the support of family, friends and colleagues I have been able to contribute to the well-being of others. That, as described in the story, is most gratifying to me and has been the greatest reward in the whole process described on OPIOID ODYSSEY.

 

You have authored this book together with Dr Michael J Murphy. What was the co-writing experience like?

Dr. Murphy and I have known each other for more than 15 years and over that period we have had many, many conversations about psychology, psychiatry and life in general.  Over much of that period we put together the ideas in the book, and how they could be organized in a way that would be accessible to the most people.  The whole process of completing the book took more than three years.   We hope that the book will be of service to all in better understanding the opioid epidemic and how it can be best addressed, and in that way to minimize or eliminate unnecessary suffering.  Though Dr. Murphy and I come from very different cultures, we understand that, fundamentally, we are very much the same, in the way that all of us are in some way the same.  That was and is the foundation of our journey together, and it is that journey that produced OPIOID ODYSSEY.

What do you hope to achieve through this book?

As mentioned earlier, it is our hope that OPIOID ODYSSEY will deepen people’s understanding of the opioid epidemic in general and of opioid dependent persons in particular.  With greater understanding, we believe that more effective treatment will be possible.  With greater understanding stereotypes will fall away and all people will behave more compassionately toward substance dependent persons.   More people will therefore be able to contribute constructively to their families and to our communities around the world.

How do you the see the future of the Opioid crisis in the states? Will this epidemic end anytime soon?

It is important to note that there have been many cycles of substance dependence in the United States and around the world.  Indeed, the term “heroin” was derived from the word “hero” in the belief that heroin would save the United States from its previous problems with morphine.  The current issues with opioids likely will lessen with time – and more quickly with effective treatment and understanding – but will not disappear.  OPIOID ODYSSEY attempts to contribute to lessening the damage caused by the current opioid epidemic and, hopefully, lessen the probability of another such episode.


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