Virginia Tech addiction expert works to understand 'why' behind addiction

By Lindsey Ward - Anchor

ROANOKE, Va. - At the Virginia Tech Carillon Research Institute in Roanoke, a professor is leading the nation in studying characteristics of those who are addicted to substances. After more than 30 years of research, he describes the opioid epidemic as the perfect storm.

Dr. Warren Bickel, from the VTCRI Addiction Recovery Center, doesn't sit in a lab analyzing beakers and test tubes for a living, his research is much more subjective: the decision making process of addicts.

"Certainly many of us who are involved in this field see the crisis," Bickel said. "After years of studying people who are dependent on cigarettes, alcohol and other illegal drugs, opioid addiction has triggered a nationwide crisis."

"Is this worse than what we've seen before? Absolutely. In terms of the mortality? Absolutely. In terms of the number of people showing up in the emergency room? Absolutely. In terms of the potency of the drugs being used by people on the street? Absolutely," Bickel said.

Bickel said 142 Americans a day are dying from overdose. 

More people died in 2016 from overdose than the sum total of all the Americans who died in the 20 years of the Vietnam War. He's citing data analyzed by the New York Times that finds between 59,000 and 65,000 people died from drug overdoses last year. While 58,000 died over two decades of war in Vietnam.

"I find it very challenging to think that a 142 people a day, Americans, are dying," said Bickel. "We get concerned when any of our troops get hurt, well, I think we should think about that in the same way we think about our own citizens."    

Bickel says his research shows that how you see your future plays a role in addiction. He calls your outlook on life "future-time perspective."

His research found that the average person thinks of their future in terms of about the next five years, but addicts on average only think of the next nine days. This concept of "short-term focus" sparked his interest after a conversation decades ago with a man "excited" to try a deadly batch of heroin.       

The question remains: What comes first? Does an addict begin thinking of his or her future beyond nine days and then quit drugs? Or, does one get clean before starting to think long term?

Bickel says his research is a step towards answering the question and could soon lead to better treatment practices. When asked how to solve this growing problem, he says, "We're not going to arrest our way out of it. The first step among many is adding more treatment facilities."

Part of our challenge now is if somebody wanted to get treatment, they often have to go on a waiting list for weeks, if not months. He believes treatment needs to be as certain as their next high.  

The reason people get trapped by drugs is when you experience them they're brief, they're intense and they are reliable. You can go to them any time of day or night they're going to do what they do.

Bickel and his team live to understand the "why?" behind addiction, so as a nation we can work on the "how" to fight it. 

Bickel created a registry for those overcoming addiction.

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