Healthy Wisconsin: Opioids

Let’s reduce opioid abuse, misuse, overdose and deaths in Wisconsin.

Prescription opioids are pain medicines that improve the quality of life for millions of people each year. But they’re also highly addictive drugs. Today, the number of people using opioids illegally in Wisconsin rivals the population of our capital city, Madison, Wisconsin. That’s more than 200,000 people age 12 and older, and it’s the reason more than 80% of Wisconsin counties have seen opioid-related deaths.

Over the last ten years, opioid-related hospital visits and deaths in Wisconsin have doubled, especially among young adults. Prescription opioids are the most common culprit, but using heroin—a strong, cheap and easily available alternative to prescription drugs—is also on the rise. In fact, three out of four heroin users started by abusing prescription painkillers.

It’s a quickly growing problem that affects some of Wisconsin’s most vulnerable populations. At least six out of ten opioid addicts also have a mental illness, and one in five people with a mental health condition also have an addiction. Individuals with a substance addiction are six times more likely than the general population to attempt suicide. Opioid addiction can also lead to unemployment, poverty, problems at home and in school, violence and homelessness.

Our goals

Preventing and treating Wisconsin’s opioid problems requires a variety of strategies and partners, including healthcare providers, law enforcement agencies and others. Working together, we can make it harder to get prescription opioids, make it easier to prevent opioid overdose death, and make sure everyone has access to substance use and mental health programs and support.

What's being done

Wisconsin’s leaders are taking action. Communities throughout Wisconsin are investing in resources to care for people and families affected by opioid abuse and overdose. Heroin, Opiate Prevention and Education (HOPE) legislation has led the way for future interventions, and the Governor’s Task Force on Opioids is developing statewide solutions to the problems of opioid abuse and addiction. In 2015, Wisconsin Departments of Justice and Health Services launched the “Dose of Reality” campaign to raise awareness of painkillers’ risks. The State Council on Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse continues to study and combat substance abuse throughout Wisconsin.

For more information on the Healthy Wisconsin Action Team’s strategies for reducing opioid abuse, overdoses and deaths by 2020, download the Opioids report

ACEs and opioid use

Our health isn’t determined by genetics alone. Our choices and experiences—especially the experiences we have in childhood—can have a powerful impact on our long-term health. Abuse, neglect and other Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) are linked to poorer health and risky behaviors such as substance abuse, and the more ACEs a person has, the higher that risk becomes.

Researchers have found that ACEs such as abuse and neglect can create toxic stress in children. This toxic stress affects the pleasure and reward center of the brain—the same part of the brain that’s stimulated by opioids and other narcotics. Opioids may also contribute to a multigenerational cycle of ACEs and their associated health risks within families and communities, as the children of substance abusers are exposed to opioid misuse or abuse in the home.

It’s important to remember that ACEs may increase the odds of having health challenges, but they don’t guarantee poor health or addiction. We will continue to research the connection between ACEs and opioids and help people find positive ways to deal with life’s challenges and overcome adversity.


Learn more about opioid abuse and addiction and see how communities around the state are taking action.

Last Revised: March 12, 2021