S eptember was National Recovery Month, the month appointed by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to raise awareness about “mental health and substance abuse disorders and celebrate the people who recover,” according to the agency’s website.
While the official Recovery Month ended this past weekend, there’s still time to think about substance abuse, the toll it takes on Oregonians and what the state can or should be doing about it.
The depth of the problem, or problems, might surprise you. According to a trio of visitors to The Bulletin’s editorial board in late September, addiction is a very large problem in Oregon, so big, in fact, that drug addiction takes a life each day, on average. Drugs, whether opioids or something else, isn’t the biggest issue. Alcohol claims three lives every day. Nearly 1,500 Oregonians die each year from diseases for which treatment is available.
Yet, according to Rick Treleaven and Talie Wenick, who work for BestCare, which provides alcohol and drug rehabilitation treatment in Central Oregon and Klamath County, and Mike Marshall, a public affairs and advocacy consultant and recovering addict from Portland, the state’s approach is scattershot at best. The three argue a much more focused approach is what’s needed.
If you’re not an addict, getting your arms around the realities of addiction can be difficult. Most troublesome, at least for me, was the idea that some, if not all, alcoholics are physically as well as psychologically dependent on alcohol. Alcohol, and other drugs, change your brain chemistry in ways that can make willpower an ineffective cure. Worse, even if you quit using your drug of choice, there’s evidence your brain doesn’t revert to its healthy state. For too many people, “just quitting” is not an option.
Perhaps if more of us understood that, we’d push harder for more and more effective treatment of addiction.
The problems addiction causes go well beyond the addict.
Families too often are ripped apart. If an addict loses custody of their children and a relative doesn’t step in to pick up the slack, the state must put kids into an overtaxed foster care system. Not all children of addicts become foster kids, but there’s often damage. I remember a young man in one of my daughters’ classes falling asleep in school with some regularity. He did so, I learned, because he stayed awake late each night to assure that his alcoholic mother got to bed safely. Addiction is tough, to put it mildly, on kids, on their educations and elsewhere in their lives.
Then, there’s homelessness. While not all addicts are homeless, and while not all homeless folks are addicts, the two conditions often go hand in hand. And that, too, is a waste of money and human resources.
Moreover, the Oregon criminal justice system is nearly overwhelmed with people who are physically dependent or addicted to one substance or another.
Consider just one institution, the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville. It opened in 2002 and was designed to house nearly 1,700 inmates.
Today, it has 1,700 men and women behind bars, and 72.7 percent of them suffer from dependence or addiction. Not all those people would be upstanding citizens if only they were clean and sober, but surely, some portion of them would. Meanwhile, the state spends $94.55 daily on housing each of its 14,700-plus prisoners.
There has to be a better way, and it seems reasonable that earlier and more effective treatment could provide it. Treleaven, Wenick and Marshall think so; although, they say the state’s scattershot approach to the subject, with a variety of agencies involved, isn’t it. Instead, they argue, what Oregon needs is one person in charge, the way one person heads the state Department of Education. I don’t know if they’re right, but it’s worth looking at.
— Janet Stevens is deputy editor of The Bulletin. Contact: 541-617-7821 or firstname.lastname@example.org