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With the headlines focused on the historic public health crisis that is COVID-19, many may have forgotten about another ongoing national health tragedy: the escalating epidemic of substance use disorder. To be sure, many have not forgotten, namely families and loved ones of the tens of thousands who have died in the past year alone. National Recovery Month is a time to bring this issue back to the top of the agenda, raise awareness and drive action.
The latest data are record-breaking and shocking. In 2020 there were almost 93,000 fatal drug overdoses,1 a 30 percent increase from the prior year. The data regarding alcohol use are just as concerning — each year, more than 95,000 Americans die from excessive alcohol use,2 making it a leading cause of preventable death in the U.S.
COVID-19 has further deteriorated the situation, exposing gaps in our addiction and mental health treatment systems that have made seeking and securing treatment a challenging and often insurmountable task for people living with addiction.
At Alkermes, we make medicines for the treatment of serious mental illness and addiction and are focused on understanding the real world needs of patients and their families. Those needs are significant in the best of times and are particularly acute in a pandemic. We have seen firsthand the effect COVID-19 has had on people living with these diseases. Stress, uncertainty, isolation, and economic hardship are often coupled with failings of the treatment system that disproportionately affect the uninsured and under-insured, women, people of color, and others in under-resourced or underrepresented communities.
It is easy to see these staggering statistics and feel overwhelmed, or dismiss them in the flood of bad news inundating us every day. However, behind the statistics are real people — our friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers — and they deserve better. Acknowledging and rejecting stigma and recognizing the humanity of those living with substance use disorders opens the door for making improvements that could turn around these numbers in a sustainable way.
National Recovery Month is a time for awareness — not just of the epidemic on a macro scale, but of the individual bravery of people in recovery who fight to maintain a positive outlook every day, and for whom each day is a small victory. Awareness of the critical role caregivers play in the recovery journey, the devotion of a parent, spouse, or sibling whose love and support keeps a light on during dark moments. Awareness of the important role played by advocacy groups who champion policies that help normalize and encourage paths to recovery. And awareness of the quality of care by health care professionals who help lift their patients from their lowest point and help support them on their recovery journey.
National Recovery Month is also a time for action. We recognized early on that making new medicines was not enough. We decided that part of our mission was to interact with the broader treatment ecosystem and become an advocate for change in order to assure that patients have access to quality care. We have become strong advocates for public policy initiatives that increase access to and education about medication-assisted treatments for opioid and alcohol dependence.
We are also making direct investments to help patients and patient-focused organizations. This year we launched an alcohol dependence awareness campaign called “My Relationship with Alcohol”;3 and, as in years past, we provided support through our Alkermes Inspiration Grants® program4 to non-profit organizations working to address the needs of those impacted by serious diseases in our therapeutic areas of focus, including alcohol and opioid dependence.
But no one organization can address these complicated diseases on its own. Lives depend on our ability to work together — federal, state and local governments, advocacy groups, biopharma companies, and criminal justice and health care institutions — to prioritize the treatment and recovery of people living with addiction. This includes expanding access to evidence-based treatments, including consideration of the appropriate medicine for each patient and accounting for the psychological, environmental, and behavioral factors that affect outcomes; addressing the racial inequities that negatively affect access to medication and care; promoting policies that create safe, recovery-ready workplaces; encouraging the funding of recovery support services within our communities and training first responders to recognize and offer appropriate support to people in crisis.
Ultimately, the healthcare system and society must recognize addiction for what it is, a serious and pervasive medical disorder. And, if we hope to make advances against this potentially life-threatening illness, we must come together in service of patients at all stages of recovery and dare for progress.
We invite you to join us in our efforts to positively impact the lives of people living with addiction and their families.
Richard Pops is Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Alkermes.