Nearly 74 million Americans age 18 or older reported having a substance use or mental health disorder in 2020, according to the latest National Survey on Drug Use and Health. In every corner of our country, children, teenagers and adults are confronting the daunting and often deadly challenges posed by substance use and/or mental health conditions—challenges ranging from trauma and self-medicating to depression and suicidal ideation, from frayed family ties and exposure to violence to involvement in the justice system, and from untreated medical and mental health conditions to non-fatal or tragically fatal overdoses.
Millions of people are striving every day to overcome the significant personal and societal barriers presented by mental health and/or substance use disorders. They face any number of structural, institutional and cultural roadblocks, as well as stigma that is often, unfortunately, internalized, preventing many from accessing help. These barriers are further exacerbated when individuals with behavioral health disorders are targeted for punishment by the justice system.
Opioids and other drugs continue to take a massive toll on our society, with the burden falling disproportionately to racial and ethnic minority groups. Not only did this epidemic claim the lives of more than 107,000 people in 2021, it also drained our economy of more than $1 trillion during a one-year period. Our nation laid out almost $15 billion in criminal justice spending alone in 2017 to address opioid overdoses and opioid use disorders, and the dividends from that enormous investment—at least from the standpoint of individual wellness—have been meager. While law enforcement officials are working tirelessly to stanch the flow of drugs into our communities, people with substance use and/or mental health disorders are too often subjected to arrest rather than diverted to treatment, where they can get the help and support they really need.
Despite all of these obstacles, many have been successful in seeking and maintaining recovery. It is estimated that over 22 million people in the U.S. are in active recovery today. During National Recovery Month, we celebrate their success and we lend our support to all who are making this life-altering and life-long journey.
The overdose epidemic and mental health crisis are urgent matters that communities, states and the federal government are working to meet from every angle—by reducing the supply of illicit substances, supporting evidence-based prevention, treatment and recovery services, expanding harm reduction, and building trust and heightening engagement with those who use drugs. In his Executive Order on Advancing Effective, Accountable Policing and Criminal Justice Practices to Enhance Public Trust and Public Safety, President Biden laid out his plan to expand alternatives to arrest, keep people out of the justice system and deliver treatment and support to individuals while incarcerated and when returning to their communities.
In its 2022 National Drug Control Strategy, the Biden-Harris Administration outlined seven policy objectives guided by one fundamental principle: saving lives. This humanitarian goal explains the strategy’s focus on recovery—recovery at both the individual level and by building recovery resilience into community infrastructure.
Although the path to recovery is never easy, many people have successfully navigated it, relying on both internal resources and support from their families, peers and communities. Rarely is success achieved alone. Recovery support services that enlist community organizations, recovery coaching programs, mutual aid groups, even innovative systems like Recovery Ready Workplaces and recovery high schools are helping to widen the road to recovery for countless people.
The Office of Justice Programs is doing its part to bring resources to communities so that they can deliver the support that individuals need to work toward and maintain their recovery. The Comprehensive Opioid, Stimulant and Substance Abuse Program —or COSSAP—has delivered hundreds of millions of dollars to scores of communities to provide education, prevention, harm reduction, treatment and recovery services and resources in an effort to steer people away from the justice system and into treatment and recovery.
COSSAP funds support Recovery on Wheels, or ROW, a deflection program in Cumberland County, New Jersey, that redirects LGBTQI+ individuals with substance use and mental health disorders away from jail and connects them instead to recovery coaches or drug courts that engage peer recovery specialists. A COSSAP grant to the Florida Office of the State Courts Administrator allows the office to deploy certified peer recovery specialists to reach low-income individuals and rural residents, giving them access to one-on-one support and referrals to effective resources.
Another COSSAP effort, the Peer Recovery Support Services Mentoring Initiative, enables organizations to adopt peer-based services as part of their continuum of care for people with substance use disorders. And programs like the Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Program and Connect and Protect are helping communities develop cross-system partnerships that allow them to serve and divert people with mental health and co-occurring substance use disorders at risk for or who come in contact with the justice system.
These programs, and many others, are building on individual strengths to increase an individual’s recovery capital, offering social support and helping those with substance use and/or mental health disorders navigate the complex treatment and services systems, all while limiting their exposure to the justice system, which often aggravates harm and prolongs the path to recovery.
We are redoubling our efforts with a new round of grants coming in the weeks ahead, focusing not only on expanding treatment and recovery options, but also on addressing the growing disparities underscored by the epidemic.
In partnership with agencies across the federal government, and with states and communities throughout the nation, OJP will continue to work to reduce the inequities that keep so many people out of treatment, and we will keep up the fight to reduce the social stigma of drug involvement that prevents so many people from getting the help they need.
I encourage readers to visit our Bureau of Justice Assistance’s website to take in some of the inspiring stories of individuals who have traveled the road to recovery, and of those who have helped them along the way. You can also listen for upcoming Justice Today podcasts focusing on OJP treatment and recovery resources.
This month—and throughout the year—OJP stands with the recovery community, and we stand with all those who are making the journey to achieve and sustain their own recovery.