May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and this year Mental Health America has narrowed the focus to substance abuse.

While some may be quick to brush off substance abuse as a “phase” or “fun time,” it can also be a serious, or even tragic, problem that affects millions of North Carolinians each year.

The Mayo Clinic defines mental illness as any disorder that affects your mood, thinking and behavior — including addictive behaviors. Substance abuse is a real mental health issue.

There’s a strong correlation between mental health and substance abuse or addiction. Those with a mental or behavioral health diagnosis are three times as likely to abuse opioids. It’s an issue that’s prevalent right here in North Carolina. In fact, Wilmington is the number one place for opioid abuse in the country. (Whoa.)

Self Help Fail

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), many cases of substance abuse stem from users trying to self-medicate their symptoms away with drug use. The temporary relief someone gets from symptoms does nothing for the cause, and when the high has passed, the NIDA says that those symptoms can come back stronger than they were before.

But it’s not just drugs that are being used as a coping method in the place of quality treatment.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism says that about 18 million people in the United States struggle with alcohol use disorders. In North Carolina, 8.5 percent of the population ages 12 or older—more than 700,000 people—are addicted to alcohol, drugs, or both. Alcohol abuse is the third leading cause of preventable death in our state. (Key word — preventable!)

Cost and Effect

North Carolina’s premium health insurance rates (through the ACA) jumped up to 25 percent, making our health care costs some of the highest in the nation. When health insurance costs more than rent, many choose to opt out. So, what’s this mean? Mental health problems are being self-treated instead of professionally treated due to a lack of healthcare coverage.

The one-two punch of mental health issues and substance abuse also makes it difficult to receive treatment.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) calls this pair of problems a co-occurring disorder, and it affects approximately 7.9 million adults in the U.S. Compared to the large number of people who report addiction disorders, few people in North Carolina actually receive treatment. According to SAMHSA, people with co-occurring substance use disorders and depression incurred healthcare costs that were about $5,300 higher than those without the disorders.

The high cost of healthcare means many families pick and choose care for what is deemed necessary. Broken leg? Hospital. Mental health? Ignored.

We’ve talked before about how substance abuse costs US employers $81 billion a year. In North Carolina, substance abuse robbed our economy of more than $12.4 billion dollars in 2004.

Even opioid abusers with healthcare, cost employers nearly twice as much in expenses on average than non-abusers. Mental health issues, risky substance abuse behaviors, and healthcare costs are a trio of burdens for someone suffering, and North Carolinians deserve better.

Few things are more frustrating than wanting help to treat issues while struggling to navigate the murky waters of health insurance, finance, and personal care. Please know that resources are available locally through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

This May, join the fight to bring affordable, accessible healthcare to North Carolina — for everyone. Learn more about mandates that affect mental health in our state.

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