Just a few days ago, we learned that life expectancy had risen for the first time since 2014 and saw the first decline in drug overdose deaths since 2012.
While this is great news that should be celebrated, we also found that suicides continue to rise and overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids, cocaine, and psychostimulants (a category that includes drugs like methamphetamine, amphetamine, and methylphenidate) continued to increase.
These mixed results are direct because the United States plays Whac-A-Mole when it comes to addressing pervasive mental health and substance misuse problems — focusing on a recent problem area without addressing underlying conditions.
In the last several years, the mole we’ve been whacking is opioid misuse, particularly prescription opioid use. Congress provided considerable funds to prevent and treat such specific misuse a few years ago. Consequently, in the new data, we’ve seen a decline in deaths related to prescription opioids.
We shouldn’t have needed this latest release to know isolated efforts haven’t had widespread success— another report from earlier this month found that alcohol-related deaths doubled in the last 18 years from 35,914 deaths to 72,558 in 2017. And, in some states, the number of deaths related to meth have sky-rocketed, increasing by more than 400 percent in just six years.
While Congress was wise to allocate billions to fight the scourge of opioid misuse, in hindsight, the nature of the problem was too narrowly characterized. States that received funding were originally limited from supporting a more extensive range of substance misuses prevention programs, such as Recovery High Schools, Nurse-Family Partnerships, and a myriad of other proven interventions.
This narrow allocation of funding, limited to a type of substance misuse, was partially addressed in recent appropriations actions, but intervention initiatives that are too narrow continue to be problematic.
In addition, opioid prevention legislation and funding have often solely focused on treating or saving the lives of those who were already addicted. Treatment counseling and detox beds have been funded and prioritized. Overdose reversal with the use of naloxone/narcone was rapidly expanded. These approaches were necessary and lifesaving.
But, as important as treatment is, it must be paired with support for prevention or we will never make the necessary progress, i.e., unless substance misuse is fought on all fronts, we’ll continue playing Whac-A-Mole with people’s lives, seeing one drug of choice replaced by another.
To improve the mental and physical health and well-being of all, any legislation or regulation must focus on addressing the social and economic conditions in people’s lives that increase the risk of unhealthy behaviors.
As such, our nation must broaden our approach by focusing on reducing risk factors, like trauma (especially among our youngest) and the impact of poverty and racism.
Quite simply, by tackling the conditions that elevate the risk of drug and alcohol misuse, we can also reduce the risks for other substance misuses — the as yet ‘unwhac’d’ moles— and for mental illness and suicide.
To get beyond Whac-A-Mole to steady and sustained improvements in quality of life for all, we should focus the work, on several federal interventions, most of which can be undertaken right now:
Source: The Hill
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