Our Latest Guidance: Philanthropy & Substance Use Disorders

The Center for High Impact Philanthropy is excited to announce our upcoming guidance, Lifting the Burden of Addiction: Philanthropic opportunities to address substance use disorders in the United States. A preview of this guidance will be released at the 2015 Kennedy Forum, hosted by former U.S. Representative Patrick Kennedy on June 9th in Boston. Our Executive Director, Kat Rosqueta, will speak on the keynote panel, “Building on Parity to Make Mental Health America’s Business,” which will be part of the daylong Forum to engage the health care system and mental health community around a common set of principles regarding mental health policy. We are thrilled to represent the philanthropic point of view in this important conversation.

Why this?

Substance use disorders (SUDs also known as substance abuse or addiction) affect Americans in all walks of life. You may not think you know anyone with a substance use disorder, but you probably do: an estimated 20 million adolescents and adults in the United States—1 in 12—have an SUD, defined as continued use of a substance despite trying to stop or causing harm to self or others.

But most people you know with an SUD probably don’t talk about it much; stigma and shame keeps the disorder hidden, undertreated, and misunderstood. That stigma is in part rooted in the fact that SUD symptoms show up in behaviors that can appear to be a matter of choice, and it can be difficult to understand why someone can’t just stop. We know that people with SUDs experience changes in their brain that make it harder and harder to stop using, but we still have more to learn about why that happens and how to prevent it.

What we do know is that bringing evidence-based care to SUD patients gets results: more people get better more quickly, and the pain and damage the disorder can cause to patients and families is reduced. And no matter how one sees the role of willpower in SUDs, treating them like a disease gets us further than treating them like a personal failure. Reducing suffering from SUDs has another benefit: reduced costs. America spends billions of dollars a year on costs related to SUDs, more than on smoking and obesity combined. Unfortunately, this spending is not well targeted, and the rate of SUDs remains steady—as does the harm they cause to patients, their families and communities. The good news is that the context for discussion and treatment of SUDs is changing, and there is a wealth of opportunities for philanthropists to make a difference.

Why now?

The context for the discussion, prevention, and treatment of SUDs is changing. In part, this change is prompted by recent trends. For example, increases in heroin use across a broader range of socioeconomic groups is challenging the stereotypes many people hold about drug users, and several states have legalized marijuana, changing the context of a criminal drug offense. Relatedly, the high and growing cost of prisons when many inmates are non-violent drug offenders has prompted reconsideration of criminal justice policies. Health care is also shifting the debate. Recent passage of the federal Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA) has opened access to treatment for SUDs and may create market incentives for providers to use more effective treatment methods. Several national level nonprofits working on different aspects of SUDs prevention and treatment have also been moving toward closer collaboration.

How can I help?

Our guidance will outline 4 strategies for lifting the burden of SUDs, including:

  • Save lives and reduce suffering right now. Philanthropy can help expand the use of effective tools such as overdose prevention medications, clean syringe programs, supportive housing, and legal aid can ensure that patients’ basic needs are met.
  • Improve access to evidence-based treatment. Philanthropic support can help widen patients’ access to a range of treatment options.
  • Improve SUD care by changing systems and policies. In the context of health reform, funders can support organizations working with policymakers and administrators to expand access to evidence-based care.
  • Strategy 4: Innovate for the future by developing better tools for SUD prevention and treatment. Philanthropists can support research into unanswered questions about SUDs prevention, treatment, and stigma.

Stay tuned for the release of our guidance, updates on the Kennedy Forum, and our upcoming series of blogs on philanthropy and SUDs.