Don’t stigmatize addiction and mental illness


If a person is diagnosed with breast cancer the medical protocol is different than for someone diagnosed with lung cancer. Diseases manifest themselves in varying ways that are consistently evaluated and assessed by trained medical professionals to identify appropriate treatments. Scientists test new medications, while researchers collect data, studying ways to treat and hopefully prevent the disease in the future.

Yet in 2016, more often than not, we view and treat the disease of addiction as well as mental health from the singular lens of a monolithic telescope, while many voices in both the recovery and even the medical community fiercely resist new methods of treatment.

No one doubts that “12 Step” programs play an invaluable role for some in the treatment of addiction, but they aren’t a solution for everyone. Plus, for many, they need to be complemented with a triage of integrated care to include continuing medical, psychiatric and psychological components.

They certainly don’t justify courts and medical practitioners throwing their hands in the air and limiting a patient’s options to a spiritual solution while ignoring the medical components of the disease. If the medical profession treated any other disease this way it would be considered malpractice.

In the 1980’s we saw how stigma played a role in those afflicted with HIV. Those who were diagnosed with AIDS were demeaned and cast out as many voices claimed they were morally deficient. For a long time, because of those ideas, research wasn’t funded at the appropriate levels, causing tragic suffering and unnecessary deaths.

Today, 75 percent of addiction sufferers never receive the treatment they need, and often times the treatment they do receive is far from adequate while barely recognizing the mental health and medical component that often goes hand in hand with substance use disorders.

As it relates to research, very few legitimate studies exist, most are manipulated by an unregulated industry tasked with saving lives while encouraging protocols that do little to make an impact on the disease. Instead much of the “research” gives unscrupulous providers new funding sources so they can justify billing insurance companies for bogus services, increasing their profit margins.

The responsible data that does exist shows little or no improvement in treating the disease of addiction over the course of the past 100 years.

Did you know that doctors aren’t limited by the number and strength of opioid painkiller pills prescribed to their patients? Yet physicians who agree to prescribe buprenorphine (Suboxone), the medication that assists with withdrawal from these opioids, are only permitted to treat 30 patients at any one time in the first year and up to 100 patients in subsequent years. Through the use of medication-assisted therapies, France was able to lower its drug overdose rate by 79 percent over a four-year period. Yet here in the United States, we still restrict their use.

President Obama has taken tremendous leadership on this issue, requesting $1.1 billion in new funding to combat substance use disorders. But Congress needs to pass the “Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act” with the additional funding. The reality is if bills like CARA aren’t properly funded, it will only be another empty piece of legislation that does little to provide the necessary tools to combat the growing epidemic of addiction that’s plaguing our nation.

We have gone too long without the proper resources to combat this disease. This is the time for Congress to act.

Fred Menachem is a substance abuse and mental health reform advocate.