Burns and Riley: Fight against mental health, addiction needs to be strengthened

As rates of overdose and suicide continue to rise, we can’t afford more of the same

America is facing two distinct yet undeniably intertwined crises — one in mental health and one in addiction. Far too often, our policies address only one or the other, when in reality, they should be treated like conjoined twins—the two share enough vital elements that any prevention, treatment and recovery strategies targeted at one affect the other.

As rates of overdose and suicide continue to rise, we can’t afford more of the same. It’s time for our policymakers to take a comprehensive approach by prioritizing policies and programs that address both mental health and addiction.

Dual diagnoses of mental illness and addiction are very common. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, an estimated 9.2 million adults with mental illness also experienced a co-occurring substance use disorder in 2018. Even more distressing is that less than half of those individuals received treatment for both conditions.

For those of us on the front lines – a physician assistant with 25 years of experience practicing medicine and a peer-recovery and harm reduction advocate in long-term recovery – we can attest that neither crisis is being sufficiently addressed.

To effectively match the scope of these crises, the federal government must make investments in research and funding far beyond our current resources.

October marked one year since the Support for Patients and Communities Act became law. This bipartisan legislation improved addiction treatment resources and expanded access to medication-assisted treatment. Meanwhile, in fiscal year 2019, the federal government allocated a modest $7.4 billion in opioid-related funding.

While steps in the right direction, these measures are not nearly enough. Suicide prevention efforts also lack a federal response that is appropriate for the scale of its impact.

The nearly three-year-old 21st Century Cures Act reauthorized the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act, which provides funding for suicide prevention and trauma recovery programs for youth and adults. The programs are shown to help in the areas where they are implemented, but youth suicide rates still hit a 20-year high this year. It is clear that we must do more.

In New Hampshire, rates of opioid use disorder, alcohol use disorder, suicidal ideation and serious mental illness are all significantly higher than the national average. At the direction of the Legislature, the commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services recently began implementing its 10-year mental health plan.

Developed with statewide input from focus groups, workgroups and public sessions, the plan outlines strategies and priorities to address the mental health and opioid addiction crises in our state, identifying treatment integration as a key theme. It calls for programs to be patient-centered, and “organized around the needs and experience of the target population” and recognizes that “systems designed around professional specialties and institutional boundaries too often present barriers to care.”

Our state is heading in the right direction, but policymakers and candidates — especially presidential candidates — must understand that voters across the country want them to prioritize these dual public health crises. Recent Morning Consult data released by the National Council for Behavioral Health shows that 77% of voters, regardless of political party, don’t think policymakers are doing enough to address mental health.

As the state with the first-in-the-nation presidential primary, New Hampshire has the opportunity to ensure stronger mental health and addiction policies are a part of the national conversation. Together, we can be the voice for comprehensive care and life-saving treatment, recovery, and harm-reduction supports.

John Burns is director of the SOS Recovery Community Organization. Lisa Riley is the New Hampshire Chapter chair of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Categories: Government, Health, Opinion

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