Every day, in communities across the U.S., people are dying from drug-related overdoses. In fact, since 2000, deaths from drug overdoses have increased 137%, including a 200% increase in overdose deaths involving opioids, according to 2016 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
If overdose dangers weren't enough, 1 in 4 Americans will face a mental health challenge in their lifetimes. Another 1 in 7 who drink or use drugs will experience addiction. Many times mental health conditions and substance abuse go hand-in-hand as individuals try to cope.
However, as those of us working in healthcare know, there is good news. A wide variety of effective treatment is available and recovery can be expected. Research shows that early, evidence-based treatment prevents years of accumulating disability. We just need to educate our communities and advocate for more resources at the local, state and national levels.
As CEO of River Edge Behavioral Health headquartered in Macon, Ga., and a licensed clinical social worker since 1991, I have witnessed firsthand the life-transforming effects of evidence-based treatment and supports for those with mental illness and substance abuse disorders. I've seen a woman who, thanks to treatment, has recovered from her opioid addiction and now serves as a community leader helping others on their journeys to recovery.
All too often, however, our society has shunned and shamed those who need help, deterring them from getting the treatment they desperately need and deserve. The stereotypes and the resulting discrimination often associated with these issues are real and can be detrimental to a person's recovery.
September is National Recovery Month—a perfect time for communities across the country to join together in new ways to destigmatize behavioral health issues and support individuals as they work to recover.
Consider the statistics mentioned earlier: If 1 in 4 Americans will face a mental health challenge in their lifetime, and 1 in 7 who drink or use drugs will experience addiction, it's safe to say you or one of your friends, family members, co-workers, or neighbors is struggling today. Truly, if it is not you, it is someone you love.
We wouldn't shame someone with diabetes or someone with high blood pressure. We wouldn't define him solely by his illness. We would see that person as a valuable individual with a life-threatening illness if left untreated. We would encourage him to seek help. For an individual with a substance-abuse disorder or mental illness, we should do the same.
In what specific ways can we bring hope and help?
First, let's discuss mental health challenges and addictions openly, honestly and accurately. Let's reinforce the message that addiction and mental illness are biologically based brain disorders that do not recognize age, race, gender, education, socio-economic status or geographic region. These conditions affect everyone from the senator's son to the homeless.
Next, let's operate from the research-based truth that treatment is effective and recovery is possible. Individuals are more likely to seek help if their friends, family members, colleagues and acquaintances approach these topics without judgment and fear. Healthcare executives can be the most powerful advocates for the services available and the life-changing outcomes they provide.
Lastly, let's change the way we talk about mental illness and substance abuse. Words matter and have the tremendous power to significantly help, or hurt, those facing behavioral health challenges. Names such as "addict" and "junkie" are not only judgmental and hurtful, but also define a person by his or her illness. Instead, let's use phrases such as, "person with substance abuse disorder" or "someone experiencing a mental illness," when discussing these important topics.
It's up to us, as leaders in the healthcare industry, no matter what sector we're in, to help end the lingering stigma about mental illness and addiction in our communities. Now is the time.