Lifting the Burden of Addiction


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Substance use disorders (SUDs) affect over 20 million Americans from all walks of life. An SUD, also known as substance abuse or addiction, is defined as continued use of drugs or alcohol despite trying to stop and/or causing harm to self or others. You probably know someone with an SUD, but most people with an SUD don’t talk about it. Stigma and shame keep the disorder hidden, undertreated, and misunderstood. What’s more, America spends billions of dollars a year on costs related to SUDs, yet addiction continues to harm patients, their families, and communities across the nation.

The good news is that there are proven ways to make a difference in this epidemic. The following guidance offers 4 philanthropic strategies for addressing addiction in the U.S., including 14 high-impact giving opportunities based on the best available evidence.

We can all help lift the burden of this epidemic. Here’s how.

Save lives and reduce SUD-related illness and homelessness

In emergency disaster situations, the first priority is to save lives, treat injuries, and meet basic needs. For people with the most severe SUDs, the same logic applies: protect their lives, alleviate pain & isolation, and stabilize their surroundings to ensure the best chances of recovery.

Improve access to evidence-based treatment

SUDs can look very different from one person to another. There is no single treatment that works for everyone. High-quality, evidence-based treatment is not any single therapy, but the practice of drawing upon the full spectrum of what we know works… and ensuring that people who need it can get it.

Improve SUD care by changing systems and policies

Access for all who need care for SUDs will remain elusive until current laws and regulations reflect the best available evidence. Philanthropy can help make that happen.

Fund innovation to improve prevention and treatment

Even the best strategies based on the best evidence available are operating without answers to important questions. Here are some exciting opportunities for philanthropy to help answer those questions through research & innovation.

A substance use disorder (sometimes called addiction or substance abuse) is the continued use of drugs or alcohol despite trying to stop and/or causing harm to self or others. Substance use disorders can include both legal and illegal substances.

Adolescents are at particular risk for developing SUDs. Certain risk factors such as mental illness, genetic susceptibility, and friends who use can make SUDs more likely. The decision to use or not use before a disorder develops may be a personal choice, but once a person has developed a disorder, that person’s brain changes. At that point, stopping use often requires more than a simple exercise of willpower.

People with SUDs are found in all walks of life, from those working steady jobs, to celebrities, to the homeless and unemployed. SUD rates are particularly high among young adults, as well as certain populations, such as those in jail. While alcohol-related SUDs are the most common, SUDs related to painkillers and heroin have been rising.

People with SUDs suffer in real and acute ways that complicate recovery. The damage and cost of SUDS also extends well beyond individuals with the disorder and includes their families, communities, and society at large.

Stigma around SUDs is a significant and sometimes deadly barrier to effective treatment and recovery. The fact that SUDs can be a criminal issue as well as a health issue is a complicating factor, and those with SUDS who end up in jail face additional barriers to treatment. SUDs, in turn, contribute to recidivism and the high cost of incarceration.

Shifts in conversations around drug policies, changes in health care, new alignments of organizations with experience and capacity in addressing SUDs issues, and the development of new and more effective forms of treatment are changing the SUDs landscape. It is a promising and dynamic time for funders to get involved.