NatCon 16 Illuminates the Problematic Treatment of Substance Use

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In March, I had the pleasure of attending the National Council Conference (NatCon16)—health care’s annual behavioral health conference. Advocates, clinicians, and policymakers from all over the country attend this annual conference to discuss the state of behavioral health treatment.

This year’s discussion highlights included:

  • The Disease Model of Addiction
  • Access to Treatment Services
  • Cultural Competence
Pictured: Theodore Roebuck, Rob Carroll, and Patrick Cook

During the opening general session to kick off the conference, Linda Rosenberg, president and CEO of the National Council for Behavioral Health, said, “If you had cancer, you’d get chemotherapy. It wouldn’t depend on a grant. And it shouldn’t depend on a grant for us either.”

Recognizing addiction as a chronic, progressive disease like diabetes will make it easier for insurance companies to cover treatment services and potentially decrease the number of fatalities resulting from prolonged substance use. Although neither this concept nor this discussion are new, the Affordable Care Act and the current Obama-Biden administration’s interest have injected them with renewed vigor.

Michael Botticelli, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, echoed these remarks by commenting on the $1.1 billion investment that the administration announced in February as a means to close the treatment gap. It was evident that providers and consumers alike remain frustrated with the state of access to behavioral health care. According to Mr. Botticelli’s data, approximately 8 percent of treatment admissions for substance abuse come from the general health care system. This may mean that primary care physicians are not familiar with the symptomology of substance use disorder or they feel ill-equipped with regard to viable referral sources in their respective communities. In either case, resources such as SAMHSA’s Opioid Overdose Prevention Toolkit will have increased significance for prevention professionals combating the spread of opioid use disorder.

An increase in treatment services also requires an increase in the quality of care. Cultural competence is an essential element to effective behavioral health treatment. At the Uncomfortable Conversations session, thought leader Dr. Glenda Wrenn, a psychiatrist at Morehouse School of Medicine, stated that cultural competence is just as important as clinical competence. Clinical skills without the appropriate cultural context can prove not just ineffective but harmful to the patient. SAMHSA’s TIP 59: Improving Cultural Competence is the type of clinical resource that could assist clinicians with developing a cultural understanding of the population for a more customized treatment experience.

As I look forward to attending NatCon17, I am filled with the hope that these discussions will encourage communities to work at the local and national levels to raise the profile of behavioral health treatment on the public health landscape. 

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