Report on addiction changes everything

Sharon Raggio
Sharon Raggio

Parents, siblings, spouses, co-workers, friends — these are people who could be affected by addiction. With one in seven Americans diagnosed with substance abuse, addiction affects more people than all types of cancers combined, and it’s likely we’re in daily contact with someone currently suffering from addiction or will be in the future. It’s fortunate we’re learning more than ever about how to help those afflicted.

Historically, our society has treated addiction and misuse of alcohol and drugs as symptoms of moral weakness or rejection of societal norms. The recently released, first-ever “Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs & Health” offers a new vantage point with a clear conclusion — addiction to alcohol or drugs is a chronic, but treatable, brain disease that requires medical intervention, not moral judgment.

The report constitutes a hallmark because not since the 1970s, when President Richard Nixon first declared a war on drugs, has this issue been in the limelight at a national level. The war on drugs historically has focused on law enforcement. We’re now seeing a shift towards helping people through addiction with policy framework, treatment and support services.

We know substance abuse and addiction is a major issue in Colorado’s rural and resort communities. The report helps open up the conversation, giving us opportunities to move beyond the historical silence about how to treat the disease and pay for treatment. New policies are emerging. In a sense, it’s as if we’re finally owning up to the fact addiction is a local issue, affecting people in our communities and everyday lives.

Adopting the finding addiction is a treatable brain disease and not a moral failing can help us get beyond judging and instead allow us to provide real help.

Shaming someone struggling with addiction doesn’t address the underlying physical problems that medical treatment does. The big shift in thinking can lead us to encourage people to seek help for addiction without the burden of a stigma attached.

We also need to explore and focus on community wide solutions. Financially, communities benefit from investing in evidence-based preventative services and treatments. Research shows that every dollar spent on evidence-based programs saves up to $10 in treatment costs. Additionally, addiction recovery has many other positive health, social and financial benefits for our colleagues and communities.

The surgeon general’s report helps us understand the physical basis of addiction and the need to treat it medically and also gives us hope in its positive vision for the future. This vision includes having addiction prevention programs and policies in place, providing evidence-based behavioral and medical treatments and facilitating recovery that helps individuals — and ultimately our communities — sustain long-term wellness.

Addiction is a disease that can be prevented and treated. Treatment is available in our communities. Recovery isn’t easy, but it’s real. Let’s all embrace both the conversation and the vision.  Now is the time to make the change for the health and wellbeing of Colorado.

Sharon Raggio, a licensed professional counselor, serves as president and chief executive officer of Mind Springs Health, the largest provider of mental health and addiction treatment in Western Colorado.  Raggio also serves on numerous local and state mental health task forces. Reach her by telephone at (970) 319-8216 or e-mail at SRaggio@MindSpringsHealth.org.