Addiction and Substance Abuse

An opioid crisis is on the rise in Tennessee. In 2015, Tennessee spent approximately $30 million a year on treatment programs for alcohol and drug addicts, and according to the Tennessee Department of Mental Health & Substance Abuse Services (TDMHSAS), 38% was spent on opioid abuse treatment.

Addiction to any substance increases homelessness, unemployment, and risky sexual behavior. Yet high treatment costs, lack of insurance, and long waiting lists can keep people with substance addictions from getting what they most need - treatment.

A study released in 2015 by the TDMHSAS found that over 200,000 adults in Tennessee use pain relievers for recreational purposes each year, but only 10% of them are actively seeking treatment. TDMHSAS also found that the number of arrests for driving under the influence of opioids is increasing while those for driving under the influence of alcohol are decreasing.

Combatting the opioid crisis, and substance abuse in general, takes the work of nonprofits, for-profit treatment centers, private physicians and recovery courts. In the nonprofit sector, most of the available funding comes from federal grants awarded to agencies, but agency leaders say that these funds are insufficient and undependable. Meanwhile, public and private treatment facilities face challenges as private insurance carriers tighten their belts and the state’s TennCare program drops patients from its roster.

In 2017, the Tennessee announced that $6 million in federal funds would be used for medication-assisted treatment for people with opioid addictions in Davidson County and the five surrounding counties. According to Nashville Public Radio, using an opiate to get off of harder drugs is widely accepted but still controversial to some in the addiction treatment community. And in a statement, Tennessee's commissioner of mental health and substance abuse acknowledges that no single treatment can work for all patients.

"For the people who can benefit from medication-assisted treatment, we know that the cost is often a barrier," Commissioner Marie Williams says in a statement. "This targeted funding will go a long way to making sure patients continue treatment in pursuit of recovery."

Additionally, negative public attitudes about substance abuse frequently keep addicts from seeking the treatment they so desperately need. While the “disease concept” of addiction is largely shared by treatment professionals, many in the community still consider addiction an emotional weakness or moral failing. Women are especially vulnerable to the social stigma of addiction.
Addiction to drugs and alcohol has been recognized as a disease by the American Medical Association for over four decades. It has a pattern of symptoms which are similar across all types of substance abuse:

  • Addiction is progressive; it only gets worse with continued use.
  • Addiction is a chronic condition; it doesn’t go away.
  • Persons suffering from addiction often relapse.
  • Left untreated, addiction will frequently result in death.
  • Addiction is treatable and can be arrested at almost any stage.

Everyone is Affected

  • According to Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, one in every ten Americans over the age of 12 are addicted to drugs or alcohol.
  • Addiction affects not only the individual, but everyone around them—family members, employers and co-workers, friends and the community.
  • Addiction takes a tremendous toll on society. The economic costs of substance abuse – to the medical system, justice system, and employers – are estimated at nearly $200 billion annually in the United States.
  • Drinking or drug use is involved in roughly half of all motor vehicle deaths and boating fatalities and is estimated to play a role in at least one-third of suicides.
  • Over 50% of violent crimes involve the use of alcohol and/or drugs.

How You Can Help

  • Support organizations like Thistle Farms that help women with addictions recover and teach them job skills
  • Support local treatment centers and prevention programs that offer sliding-scale fees to low-income and uninsured people needing help.
  • Remove barriers to treatment by providing transportation or child care to a recovering addict.
  • Volunteer with an after-school or mentorship program to be a positive influence to young people in our community.
  • Support the development of expanded treatment programs in rural areas, where waiting lists are particularly long.
  • Support The Women’s Fund, which provides grants to organizations that support women with addictions and educates the public on the opioid crisis.


Updated 10/6/17 by Kathryn Bennett