April 17, 2012

Editorial: Oklahoma Needs Addiction Plan

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This editorial was originally published March 19 in The Oklahoman.

Just as an addict develops tolerance for a drug, making the body less responsive to a substance unless it gets more of it, the general public can reach a point of desensitization to news about drugs. Stories may no longer ignite surprise — until information sufficiently shocking comes along to jolt us out of our complacency.

Addiction is costly. More Oklahomans died of drug overdoses than motor vehicle accidents in 2010. Our state ranks No. 1 one for prescription drug abuse. Direct and indirect costs of addiction in Oklahoma total $7.2 billion — half a billion more than our state government’s entire budget.

The “State of Addiction” series in The Oklahoman has highlighted disturbing trends and statistics. Media companies have united for this collaborative effort — The Oklahoman, Tulsa World, Oklahoma Watch, State Impact Oklahoma, OETA, KWTV-9 and KGOU. Combating public apathy is one front in the war on drugs.

“It seems like they’ve grown immune to the drug issues,” said Darrell Weaver, director of the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control. “They think that they’ve heard it so much, is it really even out there? The scary part is, it’s probably affecting more lives in our state than at any time ever in history. Ever.”

According to the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, about 160,000 Oklahomans need drug and alcohol addiction treatment. The issue affects every community, spanning all ages and social strata, parents and children, veterans and back pain sufferers. If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, you’re not alone. Resources are available, and many are compiled on NewsOK.com’s online “Know it: Addiction” feature.

Beyond raising awareness and sharing information, we need a comprehensive and active approach from the state level all the way down to local communities.

To increase the availability of treatment and efforts at prevention, Terri White, state mental health commissioner, has asked for $144 million. State and federal funding for substance abuse programs has dropped by 21 percent since 2009, and current resources and programs are not adequate to meet the demand.

“In our system, we have enough resources to serve about one-third of the Oklahomans who financially qualify for our services and need help,” White said.

White’s budget request merits serious consideration. All the more reason to right-size government and not cut taxes too hastily so we have enough funds to devote to these critical initiatives.

The private sector also plays an important role. Nationally, drug abuse costs employers $276 billion annually. While many companies have an Employee Assistance Program, Chesapeake Energy’s “Your Life Matters” goes beyond the norm to benefit employees and their families. Faith-based groups offer ministries such as Celebrate Recovery.

Former addicts are also reaching out to support others in their communities. One story in the “State of Addiction” series featured mentor Sue Henson, a team leader in Tulsa’s Mental Health Association apartment program. Henson has been able to use her background and struggles to positively impact other lives.

Sharing stories, of both success and untimely demise, provides a tangible warning mingled with hope. As we become more aware of Oklahoma’s growing addiction nightmare, we must also commit to developing strategies to remedy it. We cannot merely increase our tolerance of all the bad news.