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Kim Miller: Addiction is a public health problem

Mar. 10, 2013 @ 09:32 PM

Thinking about addiction to drugs or alcohol as we would any other health problem would be the single most effective strategy in the war on drugs.  

Law enforcement interdiction is the most popular response when dealing with drug addicts and alcoholics. “Lock ‘em up and throw away the key”, “punish them long and hard enough” and the desire to use drugs will leave, “let them sit and think about it for awhile in jail”, or “just stop it” attitudes have all failed to solve the problem.

It’s easy to understand how loved ones would want to put someone away — they are at least in a safe place when they are incarcerated (we sleep better when we know where they are and what they are doing) and they have limited access to drugs and alcohol. Recidivism rates for people returning to jails and prisons is 75 percent or more and shows clearly that locking people up just is not working. It is not fixing the problem. Most people who leave jail or prison eventually return to your home or your community to offend again.  

It’s expensive to taxpayers to house people in jail or prison. Millions of dollars are spent. It’s nearly $50 a day for an offender or defendant in one of West Virginia’s regional jails. Seems like an expensive proposition with no return on the taxpayer’s investment.  

Maybe it’s time to re-think how everyone thinks about the problem.

Changing how people think of drug addiction and alcoholism is not easy. Some people would say it’s a personality flaw or a moral weakness or bad choices and if they wanted to stop, they could. So it makes sense that punishment would correct the problem and make them want to stop. But it has not, there are more people addicted to drugs and alcohol than ever before and more people than ever serving time in our jails and prisons for drug and alcohol-related offenses.      

Diabetics who do not follow a proper diet are not viewed as “immoral,” “defective” or “bad” diabetics. Preventing diabetes by educating patients at the doctor’s office is a common practice. Diabetes is treated in the earliest stages of the disease. Managing diabetes with diet, weight loss and exercise may control the disease so that medications like insulin are not necessary. Insurance companies pay for diabetes prevention, detection and early intervention. Insurance companies pay for diabetics to receive care throughout the progression of their disease, paying for medications and medical supplies, even when the symptoms are well controlled. If you suspect you might have symptoms of diabetes, there is no shame in going to ask for help for it. You would be seen as taking responsibility for yourself, and if you don’t take care of your health, who will?     

People with substance use disorders may have problems with the use or abuse of the substance or they may have progressed to the point where they depend on drugs or alcohol (or both) to just feel normal. When a person depends on drugs or alcohol they are “substance dependent” or “addicted.” “Addict” has a much more negative meaning than “diabetic.” Which label would you rather have?  Both are serious health problems that can result in death. Both offer the hope of “recovery” — stabilizing the disease and lowering the risk of death. Both can be managed, not cured. Both can be stabilized into remission over time. Both can be prevented. Both give the best chance of survival when the problem is detected and managed early. Both have symptoms. Both are covered by insurance. Both respond really well to treatment.

Both are a disease (diseases are chronic and never go away, they are progressive so they never get better on their own and diseases can result in death). Addiction is a brain disease and diabetes is a pancreas disease. When people think about it as a disease and treat people with addiction problems like they have a health problem and not a moral defect, personality issue or weakness, there is less stigma and resistance to asking for help.

Punishing people by locking them up for uncontrolled diabetes would be just as ineffective as locking people up for addiction. Addicts and alcoholics who have committed serious crimes deserve to be punished for their criminal behavior.   Punishing criminal behavior is necessary; however, it is ineffective in treating the disease (of addiction). So, even after punishing the behavior, the need for treatment or recovery lingers (as demonstrated by the thousands of people who return to jail or prison every year). Fear of punishment is usually not a sufficient deterrent — being afraid of punishment does not stop most people from taking drugs or drinking. Treatment and recovery are part of the solution.

Recovery programs are offered in most communities through “12-step programs.” These group meetings usually held in church basements, are “self help groups” that don’t cost anything and that are completely anonymous. There is a self-help support group meeting for just about every problem imaginable. Meetings can be found at www.na.org or www.aa.org, to name a few. Online meetings are available all hours of the day or night. Self-help groups have helped millions of people find and keep their sobriety and recovery.      

Prestera Center offers Putnam County residents access to effective mental health and addictions treatment services in Winfield and Hurricane. Offices in Winfield are located at 3389 Winfield Road, Suite 8, on the grounds of the Courthouse Complex. The Winfield location is taking new clients by appointment at 304-586-0670 and walk-ins are welcome Monday through Friday between 8 and 9 a.m.  

Offices in Hurricane are called “Hopewell” and are located at 3772 Teays Valley Road, Suite 2. The Hopewell offices specialize in serving adults with insurance in need of addiction treatment, medication-assisted addiction treatment and mental health problems like depression and anxiety or more severe mental health problems. The Hopewell offices in Hurricane are also accepting new clients and scheduling appointments by phoning 304-757-8475.   

Kim Miller is the director of Corporate Development at Prestera. She can be reached at kim.miller@prestera.org.