National Addiction Treatment Week in late October gave us a chance to reflect, assess and project. With more than 20 percent of U.S. deaths attributed to tobacco, alcohol and other drugs, risky substance use and addiction are the largest preventable — and most costly — public health problems in the nation. In the U.S., 95.6 cents of every addiction-related dollar pay for the consequences of addiction, such as crime, hospitalization and car accidents. To have any real impact on reducing addiction in America, more money needs to be invested in prevention, treatment and recovery support before substance use disorders have a chance to become a deadly consequence.
According to the latest estimates, 21 million Americans need treatment for their substance-use disorder but only 4 million reported receiving any. Though we have made significant progress in expanding patient access to medications for addiction treatment over the past decade, research shows our efforts have not kept pace with growing needs.
Our country is in the midst of a deadly public-health epidemic that claims dozens of lives every day. According to statistics from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, approximately 40.3 million Americans have the disease of addiction — more than the 27 million who have heart disease, the 25.8 million with diabetes or the 19.4 million with cancer — yet there is a huge disparity in what the United States spends to treat these diseases.
In 2010, the United States spent $107 billion to treat heart disease, $86.6 billion for cancer, $43.8 billion for diabetes and just $28 billion for addiction. There remain significant barriers to accessing treatment, such as long waiting lists for treatment beds, high financial costs for quality care and lack of long-term recovery support services. While our nation has made valiant efforts to reduce the number of addiction-related deaths in recent years, many of these challenges will require additional financial investment, time and innovation to meet the need. One less tangible, but equally strong barrier to overcoming addiction, however, is the concept of stigma.
Addiction in the United States is a disease that has been ignored and stigmatized for far too long, and because of this, it will continue to be an epidemic. While in some areas of the country and in certain social circles the stigmas are retreating, opinions about the role choice plays in addiction and the individual’s lack of willpower to stop rule the day.
Even though substance-use disorder is treatable, most Americans who struggle with it never receive treatment, in part due to the stigma surrounding addiction and also because there is a severe shortage of trained medical professionals who can treat it.
As addiction and recovery specialists, we’ve witnessed our nation continually failing to make the investments needed to build an adequate addiction-treatment workforce. It is imperative that Congress ensures funds are appropriated for programs that provide resources for everyone in this country suffering from addiction. It took an important step with the Patients and Communities Act, part of the ongoing work to stop and prevent the opioid epidemic in the United States.
Our efforts in the collegiate recovery community have focused on transitioning those leaving treatment into a supportive recovery community. We have found that gaining the ability to stop abusing drugs is just one part of a long and complex journey through the recovery process. This is why the best programs incorporate a variety of rehabilitative services into their regimens, providing a menu of services for meeting the specific medical, psychological, social, vocational and legal needs of individuals in recovery.
Time runs out for too many caught up in the disease of addiction. While addiction is a chronic disease, it is possible to lead a healthy, productive life. The strong history of 12-step programs has led the way in the recovery process, and there are many newer tools to assist the addicted person with recovery today. Providing the person in recovery the chance to move ahead in their life and gain/re-gain the opportunity to achieve a degree from an institution of higher education, gives them purpose beyond “simply being sober.”
George Comiskey is a licensed chemical dependency counselor, associate professor of practice in the Texas Tech University Department of Community, Family & Addiction Sciences and associate director of external relations for the university’s Center for Collegiate Recovery Communities.