A New Hope for America’s Addiction Crisis
The United States Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, released a comprehensive report on the state of the nation’s now widely accepted addiction crisis. The report, "Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General's Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health," is the first of its kind and, as Murthy says, aims to provide “a cultural shift in how we think about addiction.”
It is no longer reasonable for anyone within the addiction treatment arena, nor the public at-large, to label addiction as anything less than a chronic brain disease. As Dr. Murthy points out, addiction must be viewed, “not as a moral failing, but as a chronic illness that must be treated with skill, urgency, and compassion.”
In doing so we must address current ailments within our healthcare system. There are an estimated 22.5 million Americans currently struggling with some form of addiction or substance abuse disorder, but only 4.2 million (18.5 percent percent) receive the treatment they need. This obvious shortcoming affects more than just the addicted individuals. Families, friends and coworkers also feel the impacts of addiction in daily life, but it has serious consequences on a macro scale as well. Economic productivity, public safety and programmatic welfare experience tremendous strain as they struggle to keep up with this epidemic.
The Surgeon General’s report is already shaking things up and shedding new light on a prevalent problem seldom covered in the daily onslaught of the 24-hour news cycle.
So what, exactly, can we gain from this new report and its revolutionary promise of keeping the addiction crisis and, more importantly, its treatment on the forefront of America’s collective mind?
Here are a few key takeaways:
Americans are undiagnosed and/or undertreated. We must first keep in mind that individuals suffering from addiction or substance use disorder may also have a co-occurring illness. In fact, just under half (42.7 percent) of those suffering from addiction also struggle with a mental illness and many also experience various other illnesses such as hypertension, allergies, chronic pain from injury or accidents, and the list goes on. In many cases, these co-concurring conditions may be undiagnosed or untreated.
Costs are astronomical. The socio-economic costs to our communities and employers have yet to be exacted due to an untold number of still un-treated individuals. But we do know that addiction takes a toll of at least $37 billion in healthcare costs alone. Add to that the $120 billion in lost productivity from drug addiction and $249 billion in lost productivity from alcohol abuse, and the country is looking at a heavy price tag for substance abuse. That figure only reflects problems we have identified.
Public health and safety hangs by a thread. According to the Surgeon General’s report, substance use disorder was responsible for a $442 billion spike in annual criminal justice spending and related healthcare costs. Incarceration rates are skyrocketing as well, with more than 300,000 individuals currently serving time for convictions directly related to drug use. Sixty-five percent of those meet the criteria for substance use disorder or addiction.
Talk is cheap, action is essential, positive results are possible. In 1964, then Surgeon General Luther Terry released a report on the unhealthy impacts of cigarette smoking. This was the spark that ignited public perceptions against tobacco use and set in motion a multitude of campaigns aimed at its use. The Surgeon General’s report on addiction in America has the potential to do the same.
Lifting the veil of addiction and substance use disorder has been a hard and costly road, but one worth traveling. Clear comprehension of what we are up against is essential, and the Surgeon General’s report greatly assists in that effort and ushers in a new era of understanding and a path forward.
Let’s raise our gaze, heed this report’s calling and move ever more boldly towards identifying, treating and healing America’s addicted. As the holidays approach, what could be more positive and gracious than to commit to our fellow citizens in such a way?