While we are still experiencing the backlash of COVID-19, America has certainly seen an increase in the number of overdose deaths as a result of isolation and lack of support for those individuals with mental health and substance use disorders (SUD). From May 2019 to May 2020 there were over 81,000 drug overdose deaths in the United States in the 12 months ending in May 2020, which the CDC recorded as the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period. The data is alarming and now is the time for the U.S. to provide better access to treatment.
Over one in four adults who have mental health issues also have a substance use problem. The connection between mental illness and SUD has been well documented – It is referred to as a comorbidity or co-occurring disorder. They are defined as an individual who has more than one disorder and if left untreated, can often worsen the effect of one or both diseases. Common mental health issues that co-occur with addiction include anxiety and mood disorders, Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, conduct disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise in overdose and suicide rates, a new focus has been put on mental health to prevent any more unnecessary deaths. The same cannot be said for SUD. Stigma still surrounds addiction and has a bad connotation in media and day-to-day life that often prevents individuals from receiving much needed treatment. Even medical professionals have been shown to have negative feelings towards those they are treating that used drugs illegally. Likewise, many insurance carriers do not cover or limit the amount of coverage for addiction treatment. Without finances or resources to help with their addiction, many people will end up in the criminal justice system – being punished for their disease.
According to a report from the National Drug Intelligence Center, it is estimated that in 2007, $113 billion U.S. dollars were spent on drug related crime, including costs within the justice system and for victims. Within the same report, it was shown that a small fraction, $14.6 billion was spent on the cost of treating drug use (including health costs, hospitalizations, and government specialty treatment). The amount of money spent on keeping people within the criminal justice cycle is over seven times the cost of just getting individuals into treatment courts so they can avoid the revolving door of prison and reach recovery.
Treatment courts know the importance of treating clients with addiction holistically – a multidisciplinary team comprised of treatment providers and members of the criminal justice system that provide clients with the best possible outcomes based on supervision and treatment. These programs follow evidence-based practices, such as twice a week, randomized drug testing, behavioral therapy (cognitive-based therapy, psychotherapy) and MAT when necessary. When given consistent treatment and care, many of these clients go on to have healthy and productive lives – free of the criminal justice system and substance use.
Our criminal justice system is full, people are dying at alarming rates, and our country has an opportunity to shift the way we approach addiction. Treatment should be available for individuals with SUD just like it is for people with mental illness, without stigma and without fear of punishment. If our nation could remove the barrier many individuals with SUD face, we would not only be saving the country money, but also saving millions of lives in the process.