Investment in substance abuse treatment is one worth making

BY TERRI WHITE Published: May 8, 2011
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Few things are more heart-wrenching than a loved one, full of promise and potential, falling into the world of addiction. For some, this descent into darkness happens in the blink of an eye. For others, it's a slow, progressive process taking years. The result is the same, when this disease goes untreated: death, imprisonment, car accidents, suicide, unemployment, child neglect, and other harrowing incidents that shatter lives, dreams and families.

The truth is that addiction is as much a medical condition as heart disease, diabetes or cancer. Addiction has been recognized by professional medical organizations as a chronic, progressive and fatal disease of the brain.

Some argue that substance abuse is a “choice.” Initially, it is a choice, but it's a choice made by 12-year-olds. Let me repeat that: The average age Oklahomans take their first drink is 12. How many of us think we made our best choices at that age? If someone is prone to addiction, continued use alters the developing brain in ways that, within a few years, it is no longer a choice — it is a disease named addiction.

Hundreds of people are on waiting lists trying to get into substance abuse treatment in Oklahoma. They are reaching out for help — wanting a chance at treatment and recovery — and every bed in the state is full.

Another challenge is thinking, “I know someone who went to treatment and it didn't work.” If a friend or loved one has cancer or heart disease, it would be unthinkable to allow them only one chance for treatment — only one operation or one opportunity for major lifestyle changes. Relapse, following addiction treatment, often is viewed as failure. People are shamed as lacking self-control or willpower, or otherwise dismissed as immoral, weak or not being law-abiding citizens.

Not investing in substance abuse treatment has left well over 250,000 Oklahomans with untreated addiction. This costs our state in terms of dollars and devastation to individuals and their families (divorce, suicide, teen pregnancy, unemployment); Oklahoma businesses (absenteeism, lost productivity, on-the-job injuries); state and local government services (increased demand on law enforcement and local emergency rooms, juvenile delinquency, in-school disruptions and dropouts, increased engagement in foster care); and the most massive cost — placing people behind bars for nonviolent offenses related to untreated addiction. Oklahoma spends approximately $19,000 per year to incarcerate someone who could get outpatient substance abuse treatment for $2,000 per year, and actually recover from their illness.