Lamar Odom: An Opportunity to Reflect on Drug Use

The recent news of NBA star Lamar Odom being found unconscious from an apparent drug overdose is yet again a reminder of the need for increased awareness in the U.S. regarding the early warning signs of substance use and mental health issues.

Unfortunately, Lamar Odom is not alone. Many highly successful individuals struggle with substance use as well as both the maladaptive behaviors and emotional distress associated with drug use. News reports about Mr. Odom highlight the importance of recognizing the warning signs of addictive behaviors so family members and others can step in and offer much needed help.

As psychologists, social workers, and other mental health professionals, there are clear hallmarks that can help us identify those at risk. Recent changes in behavior, emotional state, and a shift in social life are often strong warning signs. For example, individuals who may be involved in substance abuse may forget appointments, stop seeing friends and engage in novel behaviors that are not typical for them. Other indirect measures such as change in dress and habits can also be important markers for substance use.

Learning issues, depression, anxiety, and ADHD are just a few of the co-occurring diagnoses that can accompany substance use and can worsen with chronic use. Concurrently, emotional states such as shame, guilt, remorse, and anger also tend to become more intense and in turn increase psycho-social stress completing a negative feedback loop which contributes to an increased desire to use.

In 2013, an estimated 24.6 million Americans age 12 or older (9.4% of the population) reported having used an illicit drug in the past month and an estimated 22.7 million (8.6% of the population) required some form of treatment to address their use (National Institute on Drug Abuse, June 2015). Unfortunately, NIDA reports have also indicated that only 2.5 million people (0.9% of the population) received treatment at a specialty facility for a substance related issue. It seems that treatment and relapse prevention approaches are being underutilized.

Mr. Odom's recent struggles with substance use remind us that everyone experiences emotional stress. For many, we handle it by working harder, yelling at family members, getting a speeding ticket or binge-watching Netflix. Others, like Lamar Odom, try to escape using drugs and alcohol. None of these forms of stress reduction and coping are healthy and we need to focus on positive alternatives for managing life’s stressors. Most importantly, we need to be nonjudgmental and provide a helping hand to someone who is showing red flags. Hopefully, we all give it to L.O.

Jeffrey Kassinove, Ph.D. and Chris Mooney, LCSW

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