The Daily Progress: Opinion/Editorial: Spanberger bill directs aid to substance abuse recovery, prevention


With mental health a top topic in Virginia politics and health care today, Rep. Abigail Spanberger is turning attention to substance abuse recovery. Substance abuse is treated as a mental health issue.

The 7th District Democrat from Henrico has co-sponsored bipartisan legislation that would require states to spend a portion of their federal substance abuse aid on recovery and prevention programs. These programs would be means-tested for effectiveness.

“This bipartisan legislation would help build and maintain a stronger community recovery response in Central Virginia,” Spanberger said. “…[It] would provide much-needed assistance to recovery-focused community centers, homes, schools, and ministries that are already doing the hard work of helping those struggling with addiction…as they navigate towards recovery.”

The bill requires states to direct 10% of their federal Substance Abuse Block Grants toward recovery programs with a record of success and on peer support programs that help people stay sober.

Although federal mandates often tend to be heavy-handed and ill-suited to states’ individual needs, there’s no doubt that Washington is entitled to tell states how to spend the money it provides. And Spanberger’s bill sets parameters intended to ensure that the set-aside money is used to best effect.

In 2020, Virginia saw a record number of drug overdose deaths. The Virginia Department of Health reports a 41.9% increase, from 1,627 in 2019 to 2,308 in 2020.

As a subset of these overdoses, opioid deaths in Virginia rose an eye-popping 47% over 2019’s numbers.

Nationwide, 93,000 people died last year from overdoses.

The timing of the increase, of course, coincides with COVID.

The pandemic has exacerbated mental health problems and hindered treatment by:

Causing additional stress that has created or worsened mental health problems for individuals.

Isolating people so that their problems were not noticed by co-workers or family members who might have been able to encourage them to get help.

Cutting incomes so that some people who might have wanted treatment could not afford to pursue it.

Reducing accessibility to treatment programs as mental health providers curtailed activities in response to lockdowns and loss of staff to illness or fear of illness. Access to peer-support groups, of which AA is the most well-known example, also became more difficult.

Meanwhile, death statistics are not capturing a full picture of the harm caused by addiction. They cannot measure the emotional and financial tolls on families and other loved ones, and they do not reflect co-morbidity and -mortality rates, mental health experts told The Virginia Mercury.

Additionally, although the rapidly rising statistics might capture attention amid this current crisis, the underlying causes of addiction and gaps in treatment and prevention services have a much longer history, those experts said.

Systemic reform is needed.

That goal could be boosted by the Spanberger legislation. Having a permanent, dedicated source of income would provide consistency and allow state and private providers to more confidently pursue long-term planning.

A long-horizon approach, rather than piecemeal efforts based on episodic funding, could give programs and patients the support they need for what can be an extended recovery process.

One thing can’t be solved with money, however, and that is the persistent problem of stigmatization, say mental health experts. The mental health community may treat addiction as an illness, but many laypeople view it solely as a moral failing. That, in turn, discourages those caught in addiction from seeking help: They don’t want to be seen and stigmatized as immoral.

Regardless of where one stands on that question, the results of stigmatization are counterproductive from a practical standpoint. Encouraging and enabling people to obtain treatment is healthier not only for the individual but also for society.

Spanberger’s bill should improve those options for treatment. The rest is up to us.

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