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National Drug and Alcohol Facts Week 2020 Part Three: The Treatment Gap

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT
Meet The Team >

This year, National Drug and Alcohol Facts Week takes place between March 30th and April 5th. Organizers and advocates invite teens, parents, teachers, school administrators, public policymakers, and anyone involved in the life of teenagers to get on board with the theme for 2020:

NDAFW 2020:


About Alcohol and Drug Use.

This is our third article for NDAFW 2020. Our first article – National Drug and Alcohol Facts Week 2020 Part One: Shatter the Myths – gave a quick history of NDAFW, discussed this year’s theme, and presented the latest statistics on alcohol use among adolescents. That article also introduced the concept of the treatment gap. Our second article – National Drug and Alcohol Facts Week 2020 Part Two: Drug Use in Adolescents – presented the latest statistics on teen drug use in the U.S. This article, the last in our series, will discuss ways to close the treatment gap we introduced in the first article.

Closing the Treatment Gap: Raising Awareness

The first thing we need to do to close the treatment gap is to define it, which is simple: it’s the difference between the number of adolescents who need treatment for an alcohol or substance use disorder and the number who receive treatment for one.

The next thing we need to do is identify the scope of the problem.

The Adolescent AUD Treatment Gap

Source: 2019 Monitoring The Future Survey

Out of a total population of around 32,000,000 adolescents age 12-17:

  • 401,000 meet the criteria for AUD
    • 173,000 males
    • 227,000 females

Of those 401,000:

  • 20,050 received treatment for AUD
    • 9,688 males
    • 10,442 females

The Gap:

380,950 adolescents who need treatment for AUD

did not get treatment for AUD

Now let’s look at the treatment gap for people living with a substance use disorder.

The SUD Treatment Gap: Person age 12 +

Source: 2017 MTF

Out of a population of around 132,000,000 people over age 12:

  • 20.7 million meet the criteria for SUD

Of those 20.7 million:

  • 4.0 million received treatment of some kind
  • 2.5 million received treatment at a specialty SUD facility

The Gap:

18.2 million people over age 12 who need treatment for SUD

did not get treatment for SUD

Let’s recap:

380,000 adolescents who needed treatment for alcohol problems in 2019 did not get the treatment they needed.

18.2 million people over age 12 (the best data available) who needed treatment for drug problems in 2017 did not get the treatment they needed.

That’s not good.

What can we do to close that gap?

Shatter the Myths: Remove the Stigma

People who need treatment do not seek treatment for a wide variety of reasons. Fear, shame, lack of knowledge, and incorrect knowledge all contribute. We can trace most of these reasons back to three things: the stigma around addiction, the stigma around treatment for addiction, and the belief that treatment doesn’t really work.

Let’s talk about – meaning shatter – these three myths.

Myth #1: Addiction is a moral failing, a lack of willpower, a character flaw, and a sign of personal weakness.

This is false. Disordered use of alcohol or substances – i.e. alcohol or drug addiction – is a chronic, relapsing disease of the brain. This is called the disease model of addiction. To shatter the myth that addiction is a choice or a sign of personal weakness, we need to think about addiction as a chronic illness that we treat like other chronic, relapsing illnesses. We don’t tell people with diabetes they’re weak or flawed. We treat them and help them heal.

Myth #2: Seeking treatment means you’re a failure.

This is also false. Seeking treatment for addiction is the opposite of being a failure, and the opposite of weakness. People who seek treatment for addiction have successfully identified a problem in their lives and summoned the courage to admit they need help.

Myth #3: Treatment doesn’t work because most people relapse.

Again: false. People with addiction relapse. That’s true. However, so do people with other chronic, relapsing diseases. We encourage those people to get treatment for their disease despite the fact they may relapse. We need to dispel the myth that treatment is a waste of time because it may not work perfectly the first time. When someone has an illness, we help them heal. If the first attempt does not work, we reassess the situation, and try again. That’s how treatment for disease works, and that’s how treatment for addiction works.

What You Can Do

You’ve already done the first, and most important thing you can do: you’ve educated yourself about addiction. Once you have reliable information, you can form your opinions on facts and evidence, rather than vague notions, assumptions, or headlines you may randomly scroll by online. The next thing you can do is share this information with as many people as you can. That means friends, family, and co-workers. And if you’re the chatty type, you can share your knowledge with people in line at the grocery store, social events, or wherever you find yourself.

Really: people need to hear the facts. You’d be surprised how many people are unaware of the disease model of addiction. Millions of us still suffer under the illusion that addiction is a character flaw that can only be overcome by sheer force of will. We can’t stress enough that this idea is not based on evidence or fact: this is an old, leftover notion from the 19th century that somehow survived for almost the entire 20th century. Now that we’re a fifth of the way through the 21st century, we need to drop our old assumptions and catch up to the science – which clearly identifies the disordered use of alcohol or substances as a chronic, relapsing disease of the brain that responds to an integrated, holistic treatment model.

Finally, we ask everyone to search inside themselves for evidence of stigma around addiction and addiction treatment. Look back at the myths above and ask yourself if vestiges of those myths hide somewhere in your thoughts. If so, we encourage you to let go of those beliefs and trust in the science: once you find and remediate those misconceptions – if they’re there – you become part of the solution.

That’s how we close the treatment gap. We change one mind at a time. When everyone understands that people living with addiction need our empathy and support – and we offer them that empathy and support – then we increase the likelihood they’ll seek the treatment they need.

Additional Resources from Evolve Treatment Centers

Please take the time to read these articles, which all address some aspect of seeking treatment and/or the stigma around treatment:

Topics in Recovery: Obstacles to Treatment

The National Recovery Study: How Americans Recover from Alcohol and Drug Problems

Together We Are Stronger: September is National Recovery Month

So, You Don’t Want to Go to Teen Rehab

Substance Use, Mental Health, and Obesity: Changing the Paradigm

Alcohol Awareness Month: Help for Today, Hope for Tomorrow

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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