Kratom, a mental health perspective

Kelland Brewer [Courtesy photo]

Moab has long been celebrated as a sanctuary of freedom, a haven for forward thinking and a stomping ground for opportunity.

Residents and nonresidents alike value Moab’s independent culture and spirit of adventure. After all, Moab is a town of adventurers — people who achieve fulfillment by attempting feats few have attempted before.

They scramble new climbing routes, navigate tremulous rivers and have the courage to small-talk with fellow adventures passing by. There is lesser-known adventure prominent in both America, and Moab: the vitally important adventure of recovering from substance use.

For many years, people in recovery have taken part in a host of different avenues for this adventure (i.e. counseling, learning about substances and cutting ties with longtime friends). To obtain a more fulfilling life, the terrain often changes, and there are certain difficulties that are worth avoiding entirely. The challenges of addiction are far reaching, and too numerous to cover in the context of this column. There is, however, one that warrants special attention in our town at present.

The trial to which I am referring are the risks that new and unregulated substances pose to people in recovery, and the community. Most recently, a substance from Asia called kratom.

Any good adventurer knows that one needs to accurately research a hike, climb, or expedition before attempting it. Risks and benefits must be calculated, examined and scrutinized before a successful adventure can be tackled. The purpose of this column is to give you the scientifically-influenced, and altruistically-driven information about kratom. There are not many people who have been made aware that kratom even exists. It may be helpful to start there.

Kratom is derived from the Mitragyna speciose tree of southeast Asia. It is extracted from the leaf of the evergreen and can be chewed or brewed into a liquid or tea. Kratom is believed to act upon the opioid receptors of the brain. At high doses, kratom has a sedating effect. It is commonly sold at vitamin stores as an herbal remedy. Kratom is marketed as a substance capable of assisting people through opioid withdrawal, decreasing panic attacks and promoting recreational euphoria. Kratom requires approximately five to 10 minutes before taking effect. Then, the effects of kratom last for two to five hours.

What are the concerns associated with kratom?

Kratom has a number of side effects associated with its use. Kratom has been known to cause weight loss, dry mouth, chills, nausea/vomiting, difficulty urinating, constipation, liver damage, muscle pain, dizziness, drowsiness, hallucinations, delusions, depression, breathing suppression, seizures, coma and death. Comparable to opioids, kratom has a high potency, meaning the difference between intended use and overdose is difficult to gauge, according to the Mayo Clinic. The popular opinion seems to read, “If it’s natural, it must be safe,” but as expressly shown, this isn’t the case. Substances that are labeled and glorified for being herbal, are not excluded from causing harm. As of 2015, there have been 36 deaths involving kratom reported to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Kratom has been deemed unsafe, ineffective and dangerous by the FDA. Despite what kratom marketing claims, supposed health benefits of kratom have never been verified and remain unreliable. In direct opposition to pro-kratom rhetoric, various studies have observed kratom as being dangerous for a person’s health, ineffective at treating opioid withdrawal and having a minimal potential for future medical merit. As of today, kratom remains an inappropriate treatment solution for physical, mental and emotional ailments.

Furthermore, kratom has a high potential for dependence. Many individuals who have sought relief from kratom salespeople have traded an opioid addiction for a kratom addiction, the FDA reported in 2018. Kratom is a harmful snake oil of a treatment for people desperate for help. It undermines the medication, prevention efforts and therapeutic interventions proven to be helpful for individuals in recovery. It is a hazardous mirage for people who are navigating the trail of recovery and must be qualified as such. If the adventure is recovery, then kratom would be an extremely dangerous stumbling stone on that path.

As true with all good adventures, obstacles are an important part of the journey. Kratom, among other substances, isn’t an unmovable barrier. It can be overcome, if the person in recovery is given the right information, tools and support, and has the determination to persevere. If you, or someone you know has struggled with kratom dependence, reach out. There are resources for people fighting substance dependence and hope for successful outcomes.

Kelland Brewer holds a master’s degree in social work from Utah State University. He resides in Moab with his wife of four years. He currently serves the residents of Grand County as a psychotherapist with Four Corners Community Behavioral Health, but the views expressed here are his alone.