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Breaking Bad to Breaking Addiction

Avid watchers of Breaking Bad are well accustomed to the irresistible allure of Heisenberg’s famously blue-tinted meth, “Blue Sky.” We just need to recall Tuco Salamanca’s (spoiler alert: RIP) exuberant reaction to it at the end of the first season. High school chemistry teacher turned omnipotent drug lord of New Mexico and the greater southwest, Walter White produces some real good stuff. As in 99.1% purity good (which falls to 96% when his protege Jesse makes it: still – good stuff).

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While the show’s premise centers around White, his increasingly insane antics, and his ascent to power/descent into criminal behavior, the manufacturing and distribution of methamphetamines (see also: explosions and gunfire), a certain amount of attention is given to the effects of drug addiction.

Jesse Pinkman is the main representative of drug addiction on the show. We first encounter Jesse as a part-time meth user and manufacturer. We learn that he has been kicked out of his parent’s house (presumably because of his drug use). He is sober for periods of time, and seems to be drawn back to drugs and alcohol when he is emotionally affected or distressed. He finds himself in a drug-fueled downward spiral when he loses his friend Combo (RIP). He is introduced to heroin by his girlfriend who eventually overdoses (RIP). (We won’t get into Mr. White’s involvement there). We see Jesse enter rehab and go to Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings.

All these components – drug use, rehab, sobriety, family involvement, significant interpersonal consequences, death – are involved in the cycle of addiction. While many critics of the show point to the glamorization of drug use, Breaking Bad has shed a light on the meth epidemic and has brought drug addiction in general to the forefront of national discourse.

Because Breaking Bad takes place in Albuquerque, understanding the real life consequences of substance use in New Mexico becomes especially significant.

New Mexico has the highest drug-induced death rate in the entire nation. According to the New Mexico Department of Health, NM has also had the highest alcohol-related death rate in the nation since 1997. Unintentional overdoses account for about 80% of drug-related deaths. 8 of 10 deaths in New Mexico are at least partially caused by alcohol, drugs, or tobacco.

As stated by RadioTimes.com, the U.S. government reports that over 15 million people have used methamphetamines at least once over the course of their lifetime, with about 500,000 regular current users, which is actually down from 700,000 during the period of 2002-2006. Crystal meth claims about 25 thousand lives a year in the U.S.

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While the number of meth users seem to have decreased nationally, the Albuquerque Journal reports that a decline in use is not the case in New Mexico.

In 2010, methamphetamines were detected in 92 autopsies conducted by the Office of the Medical Investigator. That number climbed to 109 people in 2011, and 102 people in 2012. Addictions to meth and other stimulants constitute the number 1 reason for admission into New Mexico substance abuse treatment clinics (other than alcohol). Amphetamines in general comprised 6.5% of the population who sought substance abuse treatment in 2012. This is followed by marijuana (5.4%), heroin (2.5%), and cocaine (1%). This is all without bringing prescription drug use into the conversation.

New Mexico obviously has a long history of a severe substance use problem that spans numerous generations. The consequences of drug use are a burden on New Mexico’s citizens, government, social services, public health institutions, educational programs, and law enforcement officials. Mental and physical health are constantly compromised and threatened at an alarming rate by substance use.

Trafficking, gang violence, low education levels, and high poverty rates have all been cited as contributing to the epidemic in the state. While the causes can be endlessly argued and debated, an even more important issue arises: substance abuse treatment.

With more insurance companies narrowing the scope of services they will cover, constant upheavals and overhauls of the national healthcare infrastructure, many people are left without access to care when they are most desperately in need.

While Breaking Bad may be guilty of glamorizing a very real and what can be a very ugly problem, it does provide a platform for dialogue. The responsibility then shifts to communities and their efforts to continue the discussion, to families and friends to offer a helping hand instead of a cold shoulder, to struggling individuals to take a closer look at their addiction and hopefully begin taking the first step toward recovery.

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Working in conjunction with healthshire.com, Sage Neuroscience Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is launching an awareness campaign called Breaking Addiction. They will be offering two free scholarships to an Intensive Outpatient Program for substance abuse treatment. Click here for details.

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