While lawmakers historically haven't had the political motivation to create policies to advance substance-abuse treatment, the public's recent attention to the epidemic might very well drive some action.
"Drug use--and specifically overdoses--are spreading to areas where drug use used to be a 'dirty little secret,'" said Andrew D. Kessler, principal of Slingshot Solutions, a consulting firm, at the Behavioral Healthcare Leadership Summit.
This new window of opportunity to advocate for addiction is brief. Earlier this year, the death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, as the result of a heroin overdose, opened the eyes of Americans, challenging their ideas about addiction, Kessler said. For example, addiction is often associated with low-income individuals, but politicians and the public are realizing that addiction is more common in suburban neighborhoods and among higher-income families than they once thought.
"All anyone wants to talk about now is heroin, but when it comes to funding, there is definite friction," he said.
Only a select few understand that treatments for addiction should be evidence-based, meanwhile, there is an incredible lack of data. And without data, making the case for funding with lawmakers is difficult.
But the tide is clearly turning.
Congressional offices are now beginning to approach advocates for information--rather than the other way around. The public is demanding action, Kessler said, but what makes advocacy so difficult is that Congress tends to gravitate toward the quick fix solutions. Addiction does not have a quick answer.
"There are not two number-one issues when it comes to policy," he said. "When the window is open or when the door is open, you have to act."
Behavioral health leaders can follow this advice:
1 Remember that substance abuse is currently a big talking point;
2 Be consistent in your message of advocacy;
3 Partner with other organizations to deliver a stronger, unified message;
4 Keep in touch with lawmakers frequently, rather than "one and done" strategies;
5 Provide data to back up your message; and
6 Provide a real person's story that demonstrates your data or your message is worth remembering.