A new report from the US Surgeon General's office urging the government and health bodies to recognise substance abuse as a mental health issue, not a criminal one, might just be the answer.
Referring to the report as the first of its kind on this topic, the US Surgeon General Dr Vivek Murthy explained that his aim was to shift the way society thinks about substance abuse and substance use disorders and to take action to both prevent and treat these conditions. “I am issuing a new call to action to end the public health crisis of addiction,” he said.
The report, Facing Addiction in America, states that 21 million Americans were directly affected by drug abuse in 2015, nearly the same figure as diabetes, but only one in 10 received treatment.
"We would never tolerate a situation where only one in 10 people with cancer or diabetes gets treatment, and yet we do that with substance-abuse disorders," Murthy told The Washington Post.
Some of the facts and figures included in the report are startling. Of the 21 million Americans affected by substance use disorders, 12.5 million of those are due to abusing prescription painkillers. Opioid overdose deaths averaged 28,500 last year, four times what it was in 1999. And, sadly, only 10 percent of any of these people received the help they needed.
The report states that for too long drug and alcohol abuse has been viewed as a “moral failing” and that the stigma of shame has made people suffering from substance use disorders less likely to come forward and seek help.
There has been much evidence presented over the last year by health care experts, scientists, and politicians urging world leaders that in the face of the failing “war on drugs”, it is time to change direction and allow doctors and other medical professionals, rather than law enforcement, to take the lead on designing global drug policy. It seems the US sat up and took notice.
The report called on substance abuse (referred to in the report as “substance use disorders”) and addiction to be recognized for what they are – medical conditions – and should be treated as any other traditionally recognized diseases such as cancer and heart disease.
“Science tells us clearly that addiction is a disease of the brain,” Murthy said at a summit held in Los Angeles. “It affects the circuitry of our brain that controls decision-making, impulse control and our stress and reward systems.”
To address the issue, the report recommends that substance-abuse services should be integrated into general health care rather than niche programs that only end up serving a tiny percentage of those suffering.
Murthy said “Addiction is a chronic disease of the brain and it’s one that we have to treat the way we would any other chronic illness: with skill, with compassion and with urgency.”