“Imagine discovering an illness that kills about 85,000 people annually, and then imagine that we identify only one in 20 of those people – even though we have effective treatments that can be administered by primary care physicians or specialists. Wouldn’t there be an outcry to establish a national approach to improving access to quality care for this disease?” These words are not a mystery or a riddle – they are a straightforward description of the state of alcoholism in America. A study commissioned by the American Medical Association[i] reveals these startling numbers, and questions why relatively few concrete actions have been taken to combat the widespread social issues posed by alcoholism in our society.
Despite the fact that new methods of screening are helping to gather raw data on alcohol dependency there’s been very little follow up in terms of identifying and actually helping those suffering from the disease of alcoholism. Further statistics from the study show just how dramatically we are falling short. Although approximately 8 percent of working adults suffer from alcohol dependence or a related condition, less than one in ten with the disease receive such a diagnosis. Such a gap in recognition of illness is staggering: in comparison, health plans identify about 40 percent of patients with depression, 65 percent of diabetics and 70 percent of those with hypertension. Why do we accept such a shortfall when it comes to diagnosing and treating those with alcoholism? The warning signs and symptoms are often clear and devastating if left untreated: liver (and brain) damage, collapsing relationships, vehicle accidents and legal problems. If anything the toll of chronic alcoholism on our daily lives is much more noticeable than the cost of diabetes or hypertension. Given these significant facts why do so few receive the care they need to recover?
Perhaps the primary reason remains the stigma attached to alcoholism. Insurance companies rarely offer the same sort of coverage given to those with physical or even mental illness, despite the fact that alcoholism affects both areas profoundly. Employers seldom demonstrate the same level of understanding for alcoholics as those with other major health concerns. The situation becomes even more frustrating when given the potential success of treatments for alcoholism. As a person in recovery I’ve witnessed amazing triumphs by men and women who were once totally lost to drinking and drugs. Those who truly want help can change their lives in miraculous fashion. Yet too often the alcoholic goes undiagnosed and untreated, and those afflicted suffer because they are unaware of the options for help.
By looking at the nature of the problem a solution arrives that, though simple, will be a challenge to implement. Our society must begin to treat the disease of alcoholism with the same approach individuals in recovery adopt. We’ve got to admit we have a problem before an answer can be found. Newly sober alcoholics soon find out that the solution starts with changing old behaviors and unquestioned beliefs. If we can only come to the same realization on a national level something can be done about an epidemic that remains equally deadly and ignored. Our workplaces and health care companies have to be honest in evaluating the severity and scope of our substance abuse epidemic, a decision that will ultimately benefit them as well as the population they serve. By diagnosing alcoholism early and providing options for treatment they will drastically cut down the long term social costs. And the huge numbers of Americans suffering point clearly to the fact that the time to start…is now.