Treating an epidemic within a pandemic

By Tim Robinson

In communities across the commonwealth and throughout the U.S., mental health and addiction treatment providers are facing a new set of challenges as they continue to care for some of our population’s most vulnerable amid a global pandemic.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 67,367 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2018—more than 1,300 of whom were here in Kentucky. While public health officials and providers battle one crisis, we cannot afford to overlook another that has been impacting our communities for years—and one that will most certainly still be here even after the COVID-19 outbreak subsides.

RECON KY was formed as a consortium for recovery in Kentucky, bringing together stakeholders from all parts of the treatment system to advocate for a more comprehensive, long-term approach to recovery. And, considering current events, a statewide coalition focused on strengthening and expanding addiction and mental health services has never been more needed and important. RECON KY is focused not only on bolstering and expanding access to treatment services but on addressing the underlying factors that can lead to substance use disorders.

Addiction is a complex and multifaceted disease, affecting people of all ages, genders, races and backgrounds. However, numerous studies have shown that social determinants—socioeconomic status, education level and where you live, among others—can indeed indicate whom in our communities is most at risk for developing substance use disorders and other mental health conditions.

Now, with our country weathering the COVID-19 outbreak, we anticipate an even greater influx of mental and behavioral health needs in the months ahead: exacerbated symptoms, increased substance use and relapses and higher rates of overdose.

Thankfully, Governor Andy Beshear and the Cabinet for Health and Family Services have acted swiftly to protect, and even expand, access to proven forms of treatment and counseling for substance use disorders and behavioral health.

As efforts to address the outbreak continue, lawmakers at all levels must remember the crucial role that mental health and addiction treatment providers play—and will continue to play, moving forward—and include them as essential pieces of the healthcare system when making emergency policy decisions.

The mental health system includes many moving, critically important pieces—residential treatment, detoxification, outpatient, medication assisted treatment, recovery housing, advocacy, prevention, workforce training—that must be maintained during this crisis

Beyond quality healthcare, long-term recovery requires a great deal of resources and support: employment and educational opportunities, safe and affordable housing, transportation, childcare to encourage workforce participation.

Great strides have been made in recent years to build up Kentucky’s recovery infrastructure, and we cannot let that progress fall to the wayside at a time when many Americans are facing greater strains on their mental health.

-Tim Robinson is CEO of Addiction Recovery Care and a founding member of RECON KY, a consortium for recovery in Kentucky.