The almost daily news of deaths due to drug overdoses and suicides could give the impression that recovery is not possible. However, this is far from the truth. With unimpeded access to treatment — and especially if treatment begins early — individuals would have tremendous opportunities for recovery.
Pat, Frank and Jenny’s stories are powerful examples.
Pat was prescribed a monthlong course of opioids following oral surgery during his sophomore year in college and became addicted. In addition to relieving the pain, the medication made him feel energetic and numbed feelings of depression. After the prescription ran out, Pat turned to heroin. Within a few months, he was failing his classes and dropped out. His parents convinced him to enter a treatment program to address the addiction and depression. Now, Pat is progressing in his treatment and has plans to return to school and work part-time.
Frank developed a daily drinking habit in high school, which worsened throughout college, medical school and his residency. One night, he had to go to an emergency room for gastrointestinal bleeding. This served as a wake-up call and he sought treatment and joined Alcoholics Anonymous. Frank recently celebrated 2,105 days of sobriety. His medical career got back on track and he has strengthened his relationships with his wife and two sons.
Jenny experienced her first major depressive episode when she was in middle school. She withdrew from her friends and family and lost interest in sports and motivation to do homework, which led to a significant drop in her grades. When her parents confronted Jenny, she opened up about her emotional difficulties. She has been seeing a psychiatrist, taking an antidepressant and participating in group therapy. Her grades are improving, and she recently joined the community soccer team and developed friendships. While Jenny continues to struggle, she has not recently succumbed to major depressive episodes because she now has resources to help her through difficult times.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), in 2016, more than 8 million individuals aged 18 and older had both mental illnesses and substance use disorders (SUDs). The most commonly used drug in the past year was marijuana (by 37.6 million people), while 18.7 million individuals misused prescription psychotherapeutic medications and 11.8 million misused opioids. Based on the NSDUH data, an estimated 21 million people aged 12 and older who needed SUD treatment in 2016 did not receive it.
Moreover, while mental illnesses afflict one in five Americans, according to Mental Health America, among youth, the rates of severe depression increased from 5.9 percent in 2012 to 8.2 percent in 2015, and the majority of youth (76 percent with severe depression and 63.1 percent of those with major depression) have not been treated sufficiently or at all.
Untreated SUDs and mental illnesses can worsen, lead to or complicate physical comorbidities, and ultimately have fatal consequences.
These facts underscore the importance of identifying and beginning treatment as early as possible to maximize individuals’ opportunities to achieve recovery. However, recovery is still possible even if treatment starts later.
Many other successes such as Pat’s, Frank’s and Jenny’s have been achieved and many more positive outcomes can be realized with full access to treatment for all kinds of SUDs and mental illnesses.
The ideal is to prevent mental illnesses and SUDs, for which additional initiatives and support for prevention, as well as treatment, are needed. While education is critical at all ages, it would be most effective for young children and continuing into adulthood.
The second best scenario is to ensure early diagnosis and treatment. As with physical health conditions, the earlier treatment begins for mental illnesses and SUDs, the greater the opportunities are for recovery.
Debra L. Wentz, of Hopewell Township, is president and CEO of the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies, a statewide trade association representing nearly 160 organizations that serve New Jersey residents with mental illness and/or substance use disorders, and their families.