Several weeks ago, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued a new report, “Facing Addiction In America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs and Health.” It is a landmark document, much like other previous Surgeon General reports on tobacco use and mental health. And it is a game-changer. This is an opportunity of hope that has emerged despite the chaotic and uncertain aftermath of a divisive election. “Facing Addiction” can help us heal the devastating opioid epidemic that grips the country, kills many thousands of people and destroys families and entire communities.
As CEO of Bournewood Health Systems where we see the personal and societal suffering every day, I can say that facts and figures in the report come as no surprise. But what is different is this: “Facing Addiction” gives us the science, the hope and the action steps we can take to engage with a new administration in Washington and with new and current lawmakers, influencers and policy makers across the country. The opioid epidemic is not just a social issue, it is an economic issue and the Surgeon General gives us compelling and strong arguments for policy change, for enforcing parity and for finally treating addiction for what it is: a brain disease.
What is the human cost? Alcohol misuse contributes to 88,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. In 2014 alone, more than 47,000 people died from a drug overdose, including prescription drugs. This is more than in any previous year on record. And the numbers are climbing. For youth 15 to 25, the leading causes of death are substance use, mental health problems, violence and impaired driving.
And the economic cost? Substance use disorders cost the U.S. more than $442 billion annually in crime, health care and lost productivity.
This is unacceptable on every level.
What is different and promising about the Surgeon General’s “Facing Addiction” report is this: it does not talk TO us, it speaks with us, helps us understand, gives us the how-to that often gets lost in the headlines and sound bites. We have the road map to take specific actions whether we are individuals, health organizations, treatment providers, members of communities, families or society as a whole. It addresses the culture of America and how our culture has contributed to the problem.
It is very difficult, and some people might say impossible, to change a culture where mental health and substance use conditions are so historically vilified; where media and entertainment, despite the scientific evidence, continues to stereotype and stigmatize people who live with it; where some people in power believe that the cure for mental illness is “spanking children more.”
But I will never believe that. I will never believe that it is impossible to bring hope to those who are suffering and bring relief and dignity to vulnerable individuals and families living with addiction and behavioral health problems.
Let’s use the Surgeon General’s report as Dr. Murthy intended – as a call to action that's compassionate and collaborative. Let’s work together to change the minds of those who believe that addiction and mental health conditions are failures of character, or worse, a moral shortcoming. There is no one who believes that cancer, heart disease or diabetes are character flaws. Let’s do the same for substance use and mental health conditions. It is no longer a question of how, but a directive of must. We must mobilize all corners, all stakeholders, all leaders, all communities to work together to shift this tragic tide.
For our part, Bournewood is committed to adopting the specific actions for health care systems presented by the Surgeon General in his report. They are:
Promoting primary prevention
Promoting the use of evidence-based treatments
Promoting effective integration of prevention and treatment services
Working with payors to develop and implement comprehensive billing models
Everyone is a stakeholder in this, everyone has a role to play. I encourage you to visit the Surgeon General’s website created for the report, especially the section on his vision for the future and how stakeholders can contribute to this urgent cause. Download it, print it, use it, share it wherever you can.
Join me in taking up the call to action to eliminate the prejudice and discrimination that has created the challenges and barriers plaguing the addiction treatment field.