Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Mental Health and Addiction: What if We Had What We Really Need?

Consider several seemingly unrelated articles that all ended up in my stack of "articles to read" just in the last three days:

First, a report from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that found that the death rate among white, middle-aged Americans has grown since the 1990s, while death rates among the same age cohort within other ethnicities and countries has continued to decline.  From the report: "Rising midlife mortality rates among non-Hispanics were paralleled by increases in midlife morbidity.  Self-reported declines in health, mental health, and ability to conduct activities of daily living, and increases in chronic pain and inability to work, as well as clinically measured deteriorations in liver function, all point to growing distress in this population."  The researchers speculated that relatively easy access to opioid pain killers may be linked to the rise in incidence of mental illness.  While I think they have the cause and effect backward, there's little doubt in my mind that the two are related.

Second, a report from WESH in Orlando on a US government study that estimates there are 4 million baby boomers struggling with addiction.  "Baby boomers," the group of Americans born within the 19 year period following WWII, are now in their 50s and 60s and they're suffering from drug and alcohol addiction at a rate that rehabilitation and recovery services cannot accommodate.  "It's hard to imagine grandma with a heroin problem," says Dr. Heather Luing, medical director at Recovery Village, "but that's the reality we sometimes see."

Third, there was a lot of international coverage of a controversial paper from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) that suggested UN-member countries should consider "decriminalizing drug possession for personal consumption."  The paper was retracted by UNODC leadership with an explanation that it was written by a mid-level policy person simply expressing a viewpoint and was never sanctioned or adopted as a formal UNODC position.  This public policy approach, however, has been tested, perhaps most notably in Portugal.  Despite warnings of potentially dire consequences, Portugal decriminalized the simple possession of all drugs back in 2001.  Since that time, Portugal has seen overall drug use fall, it has the second lowest overdose death rate in all of Europe, and HIV infections among drug users are dramatically lower,  The resources formerly focused on arresting and prosecuting simple drug possession were instead poured into mental and behavioral health, education, and job training/placement programs.  And if you think such a program wouldn't be possible in the US, check out what Worcester, MA is doing.  

What are the common themes here?

  1. People are dying.  That much is statistically evident.  
  2. These deaths appear to be correlated with chronic pain, drug use, mental illness, and addiction. 
  3. Efforts over the last three decades to deal with the issue from a criminal justice standpoint appear to be at least ineffective and at most counterproductive.  
  4. The current supply of mental and behavioral health resources in the US is nowhere near sufficient to meet demand.  

So if the demand is there, why don't we have the mental/behavioral health resources we need? Because we've never devoted the reimbursement dollars necessary, either public or private, to ensure such programs were economically viable.  But now, with the Affordable Care Act's parity provisions, we have legislatively mandated reimbursement policies around mental health coverage offered by private insurers.  The resources haven't yet caught up to the demand, but billions of dollars of private equity investment is being poured into the sector.  Hopefully, it's just a matter of time before the number of trained professionals and the facilities and technologies they need to practice are in place.

And that leads us to an interesting thought experiment: What if we did have the mental and behavioral health infrastructure we so desperately need? Could we fundamentally change how we approach drug abuse in our society?

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