Those with opioid use disorder find comfort in working with peers in recovery, study shows.
A recent study conducted by Rutgers University revealed that incarcerated individuals with opioid use disorder (OUD) find it more comfortable and easier to work with peer support specialists who have recovered from addiction and shared similar life experience relating to substance abuse. The study, published in the journal Psychiatric Services, found that peer support specialists were most helpful in providing emotional support and community-based addiction recovery support, as well as information on housing options and employment, which are all essential when reintegrating into the community following active addiction or related legal troubles.
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) estimates that more than half of incarcerated individuals in state prisons have a substance use disorder (SUD). The risk of a fatal drug overdose after release is 129 times higher in the first two weeks compared to the general population, largely due to the risk of relapse and the loss of drug tolerance while incarcerated.
The study included 39 adult inmates diagnosed with an opioid use disorder who worked with peer support specialists upon their release from a New Jersey state prison between July 2020 and April 2021. They reported that policy barriers to recovery and community reintegration presented challenges to meeting certain needs, such as housing, food, employment, and access to timely medical and recovery services, even with the peer navigator’s assistance. However, participants valued most the emotional support, housing, and employment information provided by the peer support specialist, who helped navigate barriers to medical and community-based treatment.
Overdose deaths reached an all-time high in the U.S. in 2020, with over 93,000 people losing their lives. Recent incarceration is a major risk factor for overdose, but access to effective treatment in prisons and jails is limited. Joshua Sharfstein, MD, spoke to Brendan Saloner, PhD, about the importance of expanding access to medications for treating opioid use disorder in these settings. Saloner explained that incarcerated individuals are at a high risk of overdose, too, and medications, such as methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone, can reduce the risk of overdose by over 50%. While there are a few jails and prisons that provide access to these medications as standard care, it is not widespread due to logistical challenges, controlled substance regulations, and stigma surrounding addiction.
Saloner noted that policy change can make it easier to provide medication-assisted treatment (MAT), and litigation is helping to enforce treatment as a right for those who are incarcerated. Changing attitudes and cultural stigma surrounding addiction is also important. While treating opioid use disorder in jail and prison settings may not be the most therapeutic approach, it can be a crucial moment for saving lives and providing a path forward for recovery. Options for supplemental mental health therapy may also be available in some situations.
The opioid crisis has devastated communities across the nation. Countless lives have been lost due to addiction and overdose. But amidst the bleakness, there is a glimmer of hope: peer support specialists are making a real difference in helping incarcerated individuals with opioid use disorder successfully re-enter society. These individuals, who have themselves battled addiction and have come out the other side, provide invaluable emotional support and community-based recovery resources to those most in need.
As society continues to grapple with this complex public health crisis, we must recognize the vital role that peer support specialists play in helping people find their way to recovery and build meaningful lives in the aftermath of addiction. By embracing compassion, empathy, and a commitment to building a more just and equitable society, we can create a world where everyone has the support they need to thrive.