How Joe Biden can save lives by slowing America’s drug overdose epidemic

The people directly affected by conditions like substance use disorder should be involved at the state and federal levels in developing policies.

Starting Jan. 20, the Biden administration will be responsible for addressing three major public health crises: the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 330,000 Americans and infected more than 17 million; the mental health crisis, which the pandemic has exacerbated to the point that 40% of U.S. residents now report struggling with mental or behavioral health issues; and the drug overdose crisis, with 81,000 deaths in the 12 months ending in May 2020, the highest ever recorded in a year-long period.

Drug overdoses don’t happen because a person “makes bad choices.” As President-elect Joe Biden knows, addiction is a mental health disorder characterized by recurring substance use, feelings of social isolation, hopelessness and obsessive thinking.

Recovery works — I’m living proof — but it requires community-based, long-term support.

Connections, whether with friends and family, support groups or other types of programs, are critical to recovery. The coronavirus pandemic has interrupted support and services, amplified stress and anxiety, and added physical distancing requirements to people already feeling isolated. Those factors have made it even harder for people to take the first step toward remission from substance use disorder.

As a result, experts have called for more resources and heightened intervention to reduce substance use disorders since early in the pandemic. With little action from federal and state governments over the past 10 months, however, we are starting to see alarming trends.

This month, the American Medical Association noted that more than 40 states have reported increases in opioid-related deaths. In my home state of Nevada, we saw a 50% increase in opioid and fentanyl-involved drug overdose deaths in the first six months of the year. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report published in August found respondents were more likely to start or increase substance use to cope with COVID-19 stress and emotions, including 24.7% of essential workers.

This much is clear: To prevent further loss of life, COVID-19 recovery efforts must include mental health treatment and substance use recovery — and advocates from the recovery community need a seat at the table.

There’s a rallying cry in the recovery community: “Nothing about us, without us.” This means that the people directly affected by conditions like substance use disorder should be involved at the state and federal levels in developing policies.

We may not all have doctorates, but we’re certainly experts in our conditions. To that end, President-elect Biden must ensure that people in recovery are represented in his administration, ensuring that any policy solutions around drug use and addiction are informed by the experiences of people who have lived with that reality.

Support peer recovery efforts

In the recent COVID relief package, a late revision by the Senate wiped out a critical component from the original proposal — $75 million for peer recovery support services. These essential services provide a lifeline to Americans who fall through gaps in addiction treatment.

Peer recovery support provides non-clinical services that educate and support individuals as they make changes necessary for recovery from substance use disorder. This is a striking example of why voices with personal experience must have substantial weight in decision-making within this new administration: to avoid catastrophic policy blind spots that could lead to increased overdoses.

Lost in the flurry of Biden’s recent high-level nominations are key roles that will guide the nation’s response to our worsening addiction and mental health crisis. The Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use and directors at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration will have a strong influence on how treatment is provided.

Personal experience is important

Mental health science and treatment experts should fill these roles. Ideally, these experts will have personal experience with mental health and substance use disorders or at the least will commit to listen to those of us who do.

Additionally, a drug policy expert should run the Office of National Drug Control Policy, a position commonly known as the “nation’s drug czar.” While the office has taken on various forms since its inception in 1989 under President George H.W. Bush, now more than ever it must receive adequate funding and access to implement drug policy and treatment reform.

Currently, former U.S. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy is the only candidate with personal experience in recovery from addiction who is in the running to lead the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

As the nation begins to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s critical to make ending the overdose crisis a top priority. A good start for Biden would be to ensure that people in recovery serve in top appointments to help guide our national response.

This new administration has an opportunity to tackle the addiction and overdose crisis head on. The 27 million Americans living with addiction and the 23 million more in recovery deserve the president-elect’s full attention. We don’t have one more day to waste.

Ryan Hampton is an activist in recovery from heroin addiction and author of “American Fix: Inside the Opioid Addiction Crisis — and How to End It.” Follow him on Twitter: @RyanForRecovery

Originally published by USA Today on December 31, 2020.