What is Opioid Agonist Treatment?

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Opioid Agonist Therapy, also known as OAT is a prescribed medical treatment to prevent withdrawal from opioids, such as heroin, fentanyl, percocet, codeine, and hydromorphone. OAT provides a safe and controlled harm reduction and monitoring system for addicts whose goal is to reduce, and eventually cease, using drugs. Liquid methadone is the most common form of OAT, with suboxone an alternate, newer form.

The OAT program is approved by Health Canada and the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use (BCCSU). New research, knowledge and programs are continuously being implemented to ensure that adequate harm reduction treatments are available. The liquid-form methadone and pill-form suboxone options for OAT involve longer-lasting relief of opioid withdrawal symptoms than the slow release of oral morphine, relieving withdrawal effects for up to 36 hours.

OAT increases the probability of having a better quality of life, as well as providing addicts with the opportunity to address underlying issues and connect with others who also face similar challenges and relieve pain.

OAT is not the cure for addiction or substance use disorder; rather, a therapy used to physically stabilize an opioid addict, to an extent. The risks of OAT involve long-term dependency and risk of overdose if abused or mixed with other drugs.

The success of overcoming dependency on Opioid Agonist Therapy and opioids increases greatly when OAT is combined with treatment, drug counselling and emotional support. If the individual addresses their underlying behavioral issues and finds healthy coping mechanisms, success is possible. The goal of should be to become abstinent of opioids through OAT harm reduction, and then ween off the OAT itself, for complete abstinence.

Rebecca and Nicole are both recovering addicts who used the OAT harm reduction program successfully and are willing to share their experiences.

Rebecca a recovering addict, shares how she sought OAT to stop using heroin. Rebecca was told it would take six months for her to “stabilize” on OAT, and after 1 year of the opioid therapy, she would be able to taper-off the medication, with mild discomfort:

“My experience on methadone was that I felt tired and zoned out a lot. I didn’t attribute the symptoms I was having to the methadone. I remember the first time I didn’t have my dose and how ill I was. I tried to taper off the medication and was devastated to find the withdrawals from methadone were much worse than the withdrawals from my drug of choice.”

After countless failed attempts on OAT, Rebecca became desperate, and sought help from Westminster House, still uncertain whether the treatment centre could provide her with the freedom she was looking for. With a lot of peer support, the 12 step-based program and cognitive behavioral therapy, Rebecca is now 27 months free of drugs, including OAT. Rebecca has rediscovered her emotions and finds healthy ways to cope with her feelings and experiences. Rebecca shares that the journey was long, taking 22 months to regain all her immunity and energy back. She is grateful for the choice she made to become independent of opioids and OAT, and the ability to be abstinent.

Nicole, another recovering addict, was on methadone OAT for over 2 years, fearing the physical and emotional discomfort of coming off the medical treatment. Finally, having had enough, Nicole entered Westminster House in 2012, fully detoxing from the OAT to facilitate her treatment process, completely abstinent. Nicole says that “Tapering off methadone was super difficult mentally and physically, but I am forever grateful that I got off the OAT and started my process and journey to freedom”.

OAT provides opioid addicts an effective, but ideally temporary, means to reduce opioid harm, and is especially effective in combination with long-term treatment programs. OAT may be deemed necessary for individuals using opioids in high doses, with detox from substances causing potential physical harm. OAT is not necessarily a long-term solution, but is helpful in treating substance-Use Disorder.