April 17, 2012

Editorial: The Growing Addiction Crisis

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This editorial was originally published March 19 in the Tulsa World.

The problems stemming from substance abuse and addiction in Oklahoma are so extensive, so pervasive, so far-reaching, it’s difficult to comprehend the vastness of their effects.

This was made abundantly and painfully clear in the eye-opening series, “State of Addiction,” which has appeared in the Tulsa World and other media in Oklahoma in recent days.

The multi-part series by staff at the Tulsa World, The Oklahoman, Oklahoma Watch, State Impact Oklahoma, OETA and Griffin Communications was undertaken to explain in detail the enormity of the state’s substance abuse problems and what can be done to address them.

As the series also made clear, there are no easy or quick solutions, and there’s no getting around the fact that funding is a crucial element of any answers.

As the reporters found, addiction costs Oklahoma and its residents an estimated $7.2 billion a year – more than the state’s current budget of about $6.7 billion.

And while the economic toll is staggering, the heartache and suffering are even more disturbing. Hundreds of Oklahomans lose their lives every year to drug overdoses, accidents and suicides related to mental illness and substance abuse. Thousands languish in despair, unable to obtain needed treatment because of the lack of facilities and programs. Thousands upon thousands end up in prison after committing crimes arising out of substance abuse or mental illness.

Alcohol has always been a main culprit, and as most readers know, methamphetamine is a continuing scourge. In recent years, prescription drug abuse has become a horrific trend.

According to the series, drug overdoses now kill more Oklahomans than motor vehicle accidents, an average of two per day. Last year, according to federal data, Oklahoma had the nation’s highest percentage of adolescents and adults who abused prescription drugs over a 12-month period – about 8 percent, or nearly 240,000 people.

Substance abuse and the effects of mental illnesses such as depression cost Oklahoma businesses an estimated $600 million a year in added medical expenses. An estimated 200,000 Oklahoma workers have problems with depression and/or addiction.

These problems are tearing families apart. In 2010, parental neglect accounted for 88 percent of the 18,000 children removed from their homes by the courts and Oklahoma Department of Human Services.

“Untreated addiction is a major part of that, and it could’ve been prevented if those parents had received treatment,” says Mental Health Commissioner Terri White.

Our prisons are kept constantly full because of mental illness and substance abuse. One analysis of admissions from 2005 to 2010 showed that 44 percent involved drug-related offenses. Other studies show that the vast majority of prison inmates have some kind of mental health or substance abuse problem.

And yet, many, maybe even most of these situations could be vastly improved through proper treatment. But because of the state’s historic and chronic lack of commitment to prevention and treatment, tens of thousands of Oklahomans go without treatment. An estimated 160,000 Oklahomans are in need of treatment for drug and/or alcohol problems.

White is seeking an additional $144 million this year for the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services to expand and add needed services. Of course, she’ll be lucky if she gets a few million of that.

In fact, her agency hasn’t yet recovered – and may never fully recover – from the budget cuts of recent years. Since 2009, the agency has seen funding for substance abuse programs cut back by 21 percent.

The horrible irony is we will pay more for our failure to treat than we would if we addressed these problems early. And there are proven, successful models for addressing them.

But unless and until Oklahomans demand solutions, forcing our leadership to make a long-term commitment to prevention and treatment, we will continue expending vast resources to deal with the consequences of our failure.

And we will continue burying loved ones too soon.