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Linda Rosenberg

Former President and CEO, National Council for Behavioral Health

Suicide and Addictions: The Neglected Link

September 10, 2013 | Suicide and Addiction | Comments
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World Suicide Prevention Day
Today, September 10th, is World Suicide Prevention Day. A good time to ponder the consequences of what we as a society have long neglected to address — the close link between suicide and addiction disorders.

We can’t blame our neglect on ignorance. Multiple federal studies have revealed the startling statistics over the last five years. We know that addiction is the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S. — 600,000 out of the 2.5 million deaths in the U.S. annually are attributable to tobacco, alcohol, or other drugs. The failure to integrate addiction prevention, treatment, and recovery effectively into our nation’s healthcare structure costs upwards of $468 billion annually, harming families and communities across the country.

Alcohol and drug abuse are second only to depression and other mood disorders as the most frequent risk factors for suicidal behavior. Alcohol and some drugs can result in a loss of inhibition, may increase impulsive behavior, can lead to changes in the brain that result in depression over time, and can be disruptive to relationships — resulting in alienation and a loss of social connection and increasing suicidal ideation. An overdose of alcohol or drugs could also result in death.

Individuals with addiction disorders are almost 6 times more likely to report a lifetime suicide attempt than those without an addiction disorder. Yet only one in ten people with addictions report receiving any treatment at all.

Clearly, “Addiction is America’s most neglected disease,” as America’s psychiatrist Dr. Lloyd Sederer eloquently states in a Huffington Post article.

This truth points to what we can do to stem the escalating rates of suicide and addictions in America.

We must bring attention to the public health crisis that addictions have become. It’s a crisis for which we are unprepared. It’s a crisis on which we are largely silent. Since 1980, 3.3 million people in the U.S. have died of addictions, while 600,000 people have died of AIDS. If it was any other disease, we’d be marching on the streets!

But better late than never. We must march now and wave high the banner that addiction is a brain disease, not a moral failing or character flaw that many still believe it to be.

We must invest in public education, prevention, and early intervention. We must let those who suffer from addictions and their families know that help is available. We must let them know where they can turn for help and who will pay for it — parity and the Affordable Care Act have significantly expanded coverage but not everyone in need of treatment may be aware of that. Programs like Mental Health First Aid play a key role — as they educate on signs and symptoms of addiction disorders, highlight potential for suicidal thoughts and attempts, and outline an action plan for seeking help and present treatment and support resources in the community.

As with any public health crisis, we know that the solution lies in the cure. We must invest in the science that supports recovery from addictions and in translating science to service. Medication assisted treatment, injectibles, psychotherapies, 12-step and other recovery models all have a role. And we must not overlook the emerging technologies that support our treatment and early intervention efforts. From apps that alert people in recovery to avoid bars to support through text messages, virtual and mobile technologies are bringing addictions care into the palm of our hands.

Most important, we must expand access to addictions treatment. Screening for addictions must be built into primary care visits and care for diagnosed disorders must be delivered in multiple settings — primary care, specialty behavioral health settings, online, and even in minute clinics — whenever and wherever people seek it.

The National Council is advocating for the passage of the Excellence in Mental Health Act to create Certified Community Behavioral Health Centers that can better meet the needs of people with addiction and mental disorders, and those who will seek care as a result of coverage expansion and parity.

By raising awareness, focusing on the science, and expanding access to treatment, we can do for addictions what has been done for cancer, heart disease, and AIDS. We can save lives!