June 28, 2021

Among all the other challenges and losses from the COVID-19 pandemic was a marked increase in controlled substance abuse, addiction, and deaths across the country. According to the American Medical Association, every single state reported a spike or an increase in overdose deaths or other drug-related problems during the pandemic. Quarantines, isolation, social distancing, transportation closures, restricted access to medical care, loss of income, lack of stability – these are all triggers that contributed to challenges with substance abuse.

At the same time, there is potential new data that substance abuse may not be a personality weakness; rather, in a first test, it responds to deep brain stimulation, supporting the notion that it may be an actual brain disease. (The Washington Post, June 18, 2021) “Disease” is defined as a disorder of structure or function in a human that produces specific signs or symptoms (Oxford English Dictionary), or a condition of the living animal or of one of its parts that impairs normal functioning and is typically manifested by distinguishing signs and symptoms (Merriam-Webster).

Consider how we invest resources and empathy in someone diagnosed with cancer or Parkinson’s disease. If we understand that drug addiction, too, is a disease, why then do we continue to dismiss people battling that addiction with shame and punishment rather than care and treatment?

It’s time we face the truth: we are not bringing the best prevention and treatment to this health epidemic.  What would we, as a society, do differently if all of us owned the problem? How would we respond differently if we embraced the notion of disease instead of “bad habits/behavior”? And then, what lessons could apply to obesity, ADHD, anxiety, and other perceived “lifestyle or behavior” diseases?

Perhaps we could be less inclined toward indignity and judgment, and less devoted to toxic food and product profits, and more dedicated to investing in empathy, research, care, and treatment. It’s time we faced the truth of human struggle with a terrible disease without shame of others or of ourselves.

Note: The American Medical Association outlines recommendations for specific advocacy programs, laws and relief including evidence-based harm reduction strategies, Good Samaritan laws, removing barriers for medications used to treat substance abuse, and using monies from opioid-related litigation to invest in public health, treatment and prevention. Click here to read their full brief.