SAN FRANCISCO (KCBS)— In the wake of last week’s shocking death of actor, comedian and humanitarian, Robin Williams, the topics of depression and addiction have come to the forefront.
Dr. Alex Zaphiris, a San Francisco-based integrated family physician who specializes in the treatment for addiction hopes that the entertainer’s untimely death creates awareness about the resources that are available to those who suffer from each of these problems.
Williams’ suicide was shocking in a sense, despite the fact that he openly spoke about his own battles with addiction. Zaphiris said addiction is an often-times fatal and chronic problem.
“As the story evolves we’ll find out more if Robin relapsed as a part of this suicide. It doesn’t really matter as we already knew he was struggling with depression,” she said.
One of the risk factors for addiction is depression and people in recovery are especially at risk according to Zaphiris. Other factors include mood disorders like high anxiety. Trauma or abuse in childhood or as an adult can also be a triggering factor; whereas genetics plays about a 50-percent role in factoring into alcoholism or other types of substance abuse.
Late last week, it was revealed by Williams’ wife, Susan Schneider that he was struggling with early stages of Parkinson’s disease.
“We know that depression and Parkinson’s are related and we know that having both depression and Parkinson’s makes both conditions worse.”
Zaphiris went on to explain that there are no socio-economic boundaries to addiction. “We used to think of the stereotypical junkie on the corner and people that are poor [are] the ones who are mostly struggling with addiction. [Addiction] doesn’t spare any of us from the richest to the poorest.”
These topics have been considered everything from impolite to taboo in conversation, but Zaphiris points out that if you include alcohol as a drug, more than 20 million people in the U.S. are currently addicted to drugs and alcohol.
“This affects a huge number of us.” According to her statistics, every day more than 365 Americans are killed by drugs. The total cost of dealing with drug abuse in the U.S. exceeds $400 billion; mostly in health-care costs and emergency room services.
She said it’s really up to society to decide if they want to take on these issues and start looking at them in a different way in order for any kind of improvement.
“We’ve by and large criminalized drug addiction and look down on people who have this problem, but as a society the science is now catching up with us and we’re finally realizing that addiction is a chronic disease.”
Zaphiris said the first step in combating these problems is examining evidence and science-based solutions. “I grew up in the ‘Say nope to dope’ era from Nancy Regan. That does not work. It did not work, it has not worked.”
A main target in this battle is young people. “90 percent who become addicted start using before the age of 18. If we can get somebody to abstain until the age of 18, we’ve really done a huge service for keeping them away from addiction for the rest of their lives.”
She refers to depression and addiction as bio-chemical problems and brain diseases. “The problem is, it isn’t one size fits all. This is the challenge. It’s a many-pronged solution,” she said.
When people do seek medication they can become hopeless when they’ve tried “everything” and nothing seems to work. Exercise for instance is an excellent way to boost dopamine, which is the pleasure chemical, which has a huge involvement in addiction and endorphin, the pleasure-seeking chemical. These are free and don’t have the side effects, but of course an individual’s case may need more than just a few laps around the track.
“The more that we can talk about this kind of differently as a very common problem that’s not a moral failing that is a real disease that needs a real treatment, you know I think that people can start to feel not quite so judged.”