Substance Use Disorder is a Mental Health Issue

Addiction is a mental health disorder. Substance use disorder (SUD) is classified as a chronic mental condition, yet the stigma of addiction is so severe that people with SUD are often excluded from the national conversation on mental health. All mental health conditions, including addiction, must be a priority for policymakers. We need real action to end the national mental health crisis and bring solutions to people in need—in ways that are realistic, accessible, and reliable.

Along with the Voices Project, I am proud to stand with the Mental Health for US coalition. We are dedicated to lifting up the voices of people in recovery and calling for policy change that directly addresses the urgent needs of people who struggle with addiction. We call for comprehensive, inclusive, and accessible care for people that includes recovery housing, specialized medical help, integrated recovery services, and a continuum of care that focuses on sustaining recovery after the initial, acute stages. We encourage people to register to vote and become more informed on support recovery and other mental health support measures.

We are in the midst of a national public health crisis that affects millions of people, their families, and their communities. The impact of mental health is profound and goes far beyond the individual:

  • One in five American adults—tens of millions of people—will experience a mental illness or substance use disorder in any given year
  • Untreated mental health illness costs the country at least $444 billion per year
  • More than 47,000 people died by suicide in 2017, making suicide the 10th leading cause of death in the United States
  • Every day, more than 130 Americans die from opioid overdose
  • Fewer than 10 percent of people with substance use disorder will ever seek medical help

Substance use disorder has a high rate of co-occurrence with other mental health disorders. According to SAMHSA, an estimated 8.9 million Americans are living with co-occurring disorders. However, they also report that fewer than 7.5 percent of these people enroll in a comprehensive treatment program that can effectively address those disorders. People are falling through the gaps. To help more people recover, survive, and thrive, we need to close those gaps, and we need to work with our policymakers to make sure this happens.

Access is crucial to supporting people at all stages in their recovery. We need a system that supports any person at any time—whenever they’re ready to ask for help. Many people enter recovery services because their substance use placed them in danger. They may end up in the ER due to an overdose or an injury sustained while using; they may enter the criminal justice system because they were arrested for possession, being intoxicated in public, or driving under the influence. These are valid pathways, but they are not ideal for people because they are not designed to be part of a continuum of care. People who detox in jail are at risk of death. Similarly, someone who is revived from an opioid overdose with naloxone in an ER and immediately put back on the street is extremely vulnerable. These deaths are preventable. Education and prevention measures can help, but for people in crisis, that information is too late. If the needed help isn’t available, they could lose their lives to a highly treatable disease.

To jumpstart change, policymakers need to know that mental health and addiction care really matter to Americans. I encourage you to start by joining the thousands of mental health and addiction advocates in signing the Mental Health for US statement of support, which tells policymakers that breaking down barriers to prevention strategies, treatment, and recovery supports needs to be a top priority in this country.

We need to build bridges for people who are seeking recovery, and Mental Health for US is working to elevate mental health AND addiction in national policy conversations to fix a struggling health system. From ethical sober living homes, to peer recovery support, to universally available naloxone, to accessible services that encompass a wide spectrum of mental health needs—we need to think way, way outside the box. Mental health includes addiction. When we bring these issues under the same umbrella, we can save millions of lives—and change millions more.