Recovery Communities Help Close the Treatment Gap

Group of people in a group therapy setting
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By Peggy Gemperline RN, BSN, MBA, Vice President, Residential/Ambulatory Services, Pinnacle Treatment Centers

Reducing Stigma Through Community Support and Awareness

A recovery community is exactly what it sounds like.

It’s a group of people who share one thing in common: recovery.

Recovery communities exist for survivors of trauma and their families, for people in treatment for mental health disorders and their families, and for cancer survivors and their families – among others. This article is about people in recovery from alcohol or substance use disorder (AUD/SUD), a.k.a. alcohol or drug addiction – and the communities of people who surround and support them.

In most cases, we think of a recovery community as small: it’s the group of people that support one person in recovery.

However, the idea of a recovery community is larger than that.

It’s about the nationwide community as well as all the recovery communities that exist in smaller units around the country. It’s important to recognize that everyone in recovery has their version of a recovery community. For one individual, it might include relatively few people: their immediate family, their therapist or counselor, and one close friend. For others, it might include a dozen or more: everyone who attends their community and social support meetings, the therapists and staff at their treatment center, their extended family, and other friends and peers. Most people in recovery are somewhere in the middle: their recovery community includes immediate family, a counselor/therapist support group peers, and perhaps a close friend.

These connections enrich, sustain, and help people in recovery stay in recovery. While each community looks different, we’ll list the people who are present in most recovery communities, small and large.

Who’s Part of A Recovery Community?

  1. The person in recovery.
  2. Their social support group: NA, AA, SMART Recovery, and others.
  3. Immediate family: parents, spouses, siblings, and sometimes children.
  4. Chosen family: close friends, significant others, important peers.
  5. Work peers.
  6. Therapists, counselors, recovery treatment center staff.

It’s true: for some people, immediate family are not part of their recovery community, and for good reason. For others, no one at work knows they’re in recovery – also for good reason. For still others, their support system is made up entirely of their AA or NA group and a close friend or two. It’s different for everyone, because everyone in recovery follows a distinct path of their own creation.

There is, however, someone we left off this list: you.

Why You Matter: Recovery Facts and Figures

If you’re reading this, you matter. Statistically speaking, the chances are you know someone who’s either in recovery or needs support for an alcohol or substance use disorder. That’s no exaggeration: we have the numbers to show you. You matter because if you know the facts about treatment and recovery, and are willing and able to share them when the topic comes up, you can make a difference. This may sound dramatic, but it’s true: offering the right information to the right person at the right time can save a life.

That’s a fact.

Now, about those numbers.

Every year, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and SAMHSA conduct the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), which is a massive, nationwide survey designed to assess – among other things – the prevalence of alcohol use disorder (AUD) and substance use disorder (SUD) among U.S. citizens. The most recent NSDUH, published in 2019, included data on attitudes about alcohol and drug consumption, as well as details about how many people needed and received treatment for AUD/SUD

This article will present and discuss the prevalence and treatment data.

First, let’s review the overall prevalence numbers for AUD/SUD among adults age 18 + in the U.S. These figures are from the 2020 NSDUH and include details from questionnaires answered in 2017-2020.

Alcohol and Substance Use Disorder Among Adults Age 18-25

  • Alcohol Use Disorder:
    • 2017: 3,444,000
    • 2018: 3,424,000
    • 2019: 3,100,000
    • 2020: 5,215,000
  • Substance Use Disorder:
    • 2017: 5,076,000
    • 2018: 5,118,000
    • 2019: 4,800,000
    • 2020: 7,320,000

Alcohol and Substance Use Disorder Among Adults Age 26 +

  • Alcohol Use Disorder:
    • 2017: 10,618,000
    • 2018: 10,994,000
    • 2019: 11,000,000
    • 2020: 22,400,000
  • Substance Use Disorder:
    • 2017: 13,632,000
    • 2018: 14,225,000
    • 2019: 14,500,000
    • 2020: 31,640,000

Now let’s take a closer look, and review the numbers on treatment:

Received Treatment for Alcohol or Substance Use Disorder Adults Age 18-25

Received Treatment for Alcohol or Substance Use Disorder Adults Age 26 +

  • Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder:
    • 2017: 2,014,000
    • 2018: 1,955,000
    • 2019: 2,126,000
    • 2020: 1,639,000
  • Treatment for Substance Use Disorder:
    • 2017: 1,864,000
    • 2018: 1,656,000
    • 2019: 1,824,000
    • 2020: 2,071,000

And now let’s take an even closer look. The NSDUH shows how many adults age 18 + received specialized treatment for their AUD or SUD:

Received Treatment for AUD/SUD at Specialized Facility Adults Age 18-25

  • Treatment at Specialized Facility for AUD:
    • 2017: 214,000
    • 2018: 180,000
    • 2019: 186,000
    • 2020: 174,000
  • Treatment at a Specialized Facility for SUD:
    • 2017: 319,000
    • 2018: 201,000
    • 2019: 231,000
    • 2020: 183,000

Received Treatment for AUD/SUD at Specialized Facility Adults Age 26 +

  • Treatment at Specialized Facility for AUD:
    • 2017: 1,109,000
    • 2018: 1,181,000
    • 2019: 1,239,000
    • 2020: 895,000
  • Treatment at a Specialized Facility for SUD:
    • 2017: 1,299,000
    • 2018: 1,111,000
    • 2019: 1,341,000
    • 2020: 1,705,000

At first glance, this data is not encouraging. Rates of AUD for people age 18-25 remained stable from 2017 to 2018, whereas rates of SUD for that age group rose. AUD and SUD increased for people 18-25 and people age 26 + from 2017 to 2018. When we look at treatment numbers, we’d like to see them increase – while acknowledging the starting numbers are nothing to cheer about – but instead, what we see is these numbers decreasing, except for people age 26 + who received treatment for AUD at a specialized facility: that number shows us more people got treatment in 2018 than 2017, which is a step in the right direction, treatment-wise.

Which brings us to what mental health and addiction professionals call the treatment gap.

The Goal: Close the Gap

The treatment gap is a simple concept to understand: it’s the difference between the number of people diagnosed with AUD/SUD and the number of people who received treatment for AUD/SUD. Let’s take a deep dive into the figures for 2020 and address the treatment gap that exists in the U.S. for people age 18 + diagnosed with AUD or SUD.

Here’s what the numbers say:

The Treatment Gap in 2020: Age 18-25

  • People with AUD: 5,215,00
  • People who received treatment for AUD: 290,000
    • That’s 5.5%
  • People who received specialized treatment for AUD: 174,000
    • That’s 3.3%
  • People with SUD: 7,320,000
  • People who received treatment for SUD: 277,000
    • That’s 3.7%
  • People who received specialized treatment for SUD: 183,000
    • That’s 2.5%

The Treatment Gap in 2020: Age 26 +

  • People with AUD: 22,400,000
  • People who received treatment for AUD: 1,639,000
    • That’s 9.2%
  • People who received specialized treatment for AUD: 1,181,000
    • That’s 4.0%
  • People with SUD: 31,640,000
  • People who received treatment for SUD: 2,071,000
    • That’s 6.5%
  • People who received specialized treatment for SUD: 1,705,000
    • That’s 5.3%

Those gaps are far too large. We’ll write these numbers another way, but first, we need to talk about treatment for a moment. Evidence shows that people with AUD and SUD have the best chance of sustained, lifelong recovery when they receive specialized treatment that’s tailored to their individual needs and their specific disorder. With that in mind, we observe in the data above that in 2020:

  • 96% of people age 18-25 diagnosed with AUD did not get specialized treatment
  • 97% of people age 18-25 diagnosed with SUD did not get specialized treatment
  • 90% of people age 26 + diagnosed with AUD did not get specialized treatment
  • 94% of people age 26 + diagnosed with SUD did not get specialized treatment

We repeated that phrase on purpose, to drive the point home. The treatment gap is too large. It’s something that concerns mental health professionals working in addiction and recovery, and it’s something that should concern anyone reading this article.

What You Can Do

You started already by reading this article and understanding the statistics. You know there are millions of people in the country diagnosed with AUD and SUD, and that of those millions, only a small percentage get the specialized treatment that gives them the best chance at achieving sustained recovery. We’re encouraged that almost twenty percent of people age 26 + diagnosed with AUD got some type of treatment. However, the rest of the treatment statistics reiterate the need for articles like this one.

All of us can join in the awareness effort, because where alcohol and drug use are concerned, knowledge leads to healing – and healing leads to improved lives both for the people who misuse alcohol and drugs and for the people who know and love them. We can all join in by remembering there are three primary ways to work to reduce the treatment gap:

  1. To spread awareness about substance use and mental health treatment and recovery support and services.
  2. To reduce stigma related to mental health and alcohol/substance use disorders.
  3. To educate the public that evidence-based treatment can and does enable people with mental health and alcohol/substance use disorders live healthy, rewarding, and productive lives.

Those are the goals we listed at the beginning of this article, but they’re worth repeating. Now you can tell people you know the facts about treatment and recovery. At the very least, you know you’re doing your part to help. At best, you can help someone in need get the help that changes – and possibly saves – their life.

The materials provided on the Pinnacle Blog are for information and educational purposes only. No behavioral health or any other professional services are provided through the Blog and the information obtained through the Blog is not a substitute for consultation with a qualified health professional. If you are in need of medical or behavioral health treatment, please contact a qualified health professional directly, and if you are in need of emergency help, please go to your nearest emergency room or dial 911.