Dave Hodges said it’s about time the people of Tennessee begin seeing things like drug and alcohol addiction differently.
He is the Region 3 coordinator of a new state initiative called Project Lifeline that is in partnership with the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, and he told the Bradley County Health Council on Tuesday that the key to helping people recover from addictions might just be rethinking how people address addiction.
“We want to change the face of recovery,” Hodges said.
Project Lifeline has 10 individuals helping counties all over the state look at ways to improve what is available to help people recovering from addictions by focusing on adding more peer counseling.
Tennessee is currently “leading the way” in problems like prescription drug and methamphetamine abuse, Hodges said.
When Mental Health Department Commissioner E. Douglas Varney asked him to be part of the initiative, Hodges said he mentioned one proven strategy for combatting drug abuse has been the presence of good recovery resources. Recovery is “the path to the goal.”
Hodges works with 10 different counties in the area, including Bradley, Polk, Hamilton and McMinn. He said he often introduces himself with his job title when he speaks, but he often likes to preface his comments with the fact he is a “longtime recovering addict.”
Introducing himself in such a way sometimes leaves his audience taken aback, and that is the point. He said people who have dealt with addictions in the past do not often talk about the fact they once struggled themselves.
“How many people would have the guts to say that?” he asked the room of health professionals, who all remained silent. “That’s the problem.”
Hodges said addictions to substances like drugs and alcohol often involve criminal activity, and many addicts end up in prison. While serving their time, many who need it don’t receive enough help recovering from their addictions. When they get out of jail, many return to what got them addicted in the first place.
Part of the problem, he said, is many people get so occupied with the thought of addiction being tied to crime.
He said just focusing on addiction as a criminal issue can lead to many people not getting the help they need, either inside or outside of jail.
“Addiction is a mental health disorder,” Hodges said. “It’s a health epidemic.”
When people in Nashville began talking about ways to help lessen the number of people dealing with addictions, he said they came to the conclusion recovered addicts telling their stories can help current addicts get on track toward their own recoveries.
Hodges reiterated the view there is not enough help available for recovering addicts in Tennessee. He said it is “backwards” for someone to have to wait 30 days to get into drug rehabilitation facilities but get picked up by police in an instant if they are found to be violating a law related to substance abuse.
While more and more judges statewide are entertaining the idea of giving people with misdemeanor charges alternative sentences that include drug addiction treatment, some counties are not able to do that because rehabilitation facilities and support groups like Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous simply do not exist there.
According to the recent figures from Project Lifeline, an estimated 294,695 youth as young as 12 and adults in Tennessee “needed but did not receive treatment in the past year.”
Hodges said all communities need to have good, strong support groups for people recovering from addiction, and the public needs to realize the actions of addicts stem from the state of their mental health. They need help.
“We’ve got to start changing the way that we do things,” he said.
In an effort to help raise awareness about the issues surrounding addiction, a Washington, D.C., group created a documentary called “The Anonymous People” which Hodges said he hopes to show in Cleveland. He asked health council members to think about possible screening dates and locations.