Addiction a chronic disease

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A message from Commissioners E. Douglas Varney & John J. Dreyzehner, MD

NASHVILLE - It is time to change the conversation in Tennessee. It is time to recognize addiction for what it is: a chronic disease, not a moral failing.

Addiction impacts about one in three families in our state. It is a disease to which we are all susceptible by our very nature as human beings. Whether our brains crave nicotine, alcohol, sugar, prescription drugs, or other substances, it is fact, not fate, we can recover.

For the better part of the past two decades, we have witnessed a tragic and dramatic increase in our craving for prescription drugs, chiefly opioids like morphine and hydrocodone and benzodiazepines like alprazolam, and now a troubling trend in the Volunteer State - heroin. In too many homes, from small towns to our large metropolitan cities, the young to the old, across all demographics, Tennesseans have succumbed to the grip of substance abuse.

The easy access of opioids as a remedy to control pain and the mistaken belief they are the only or best option have led thousands in our state down a dangerous path. Many of you have seen the tragic outcomes firsthand, in your own homes, among immediate family, friends, and work colleagues.

We've reached a level of harm that's beyond anything we could have imagined. Drug overdose deaths have eclipsed automobile deaths in this state. In recent years, more Tennesseans have died as a result of their overdose with these drugs than the annual toll of traffic fatalities. This is a tragic and eye opening statistic.

The good news is more and more people are fighting their way back, conquering their addiction. All of us can help. In the 1980s and 90s people with HIV/AIDS were looked upon by many with fear and scorn. Now things are different: Most of us found our compassion. The same transition must occur for substance use disorders.

Under Governor Haslam's leadership, we put forward the Prescription Safety Act, which resulted in a 50 percent decrease in "doctor shopping." The act phases out this year, so we are working with the legislature to see that it becomes permanent.

In addition, Recovery (Drug) Courts in Tennessee have been helping those who struggle with addictions, substance use issues and mental health challenges on the path to a more successful, rewarding and drug-free future.

Since 2003, when the courts started in Tennessee, participation has grown substantially during the Haslam administration from 1,315 in fiscal year 2011-12 to 5,689 new admissions over the past four years. As involvement has increased, so has access to the court programs, which are now in 75 counties and 28 judicial districts. And the governor's current budget includes more money to expand these courts.

In an evaluation of participants from 2013 to 2015, an impressive 81 percent landed a job or secured a better job and 28 percent who were homeless or living in a group home secured their own residence. With support from local leaders, district attorneys, public defenders, and treatment providers we are changing lives in Tennessee.

Recovery from a serious drug addiction is possible.

If you or someone you care for is in need of substance use treatment, call the Tennessee REDLINE anytime at 1-800-889-9789 for help now. Resources are available across the state.

Help is available, treatment works and recovery is possible. Please help us spread the word.

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