Closing the Addiction Treatment Gap

Addict is struggling

One of the biggest problems that we face in addressing the addiction epidemic is making sure that those who suffer from addiction get the help that they need. There are millions of people in the U.S. who are addicted to drugs or alcohol. Unfortunately, only a small percentage of them ever receive treatment. This lack of treatment serves only to perpetuate the addiction crisis, as addiction is not something that goes away on its own. People need professional help to break free from addiction.

What is it going to take to close the treatment gap? And why is it so important that we do close this gap?

The Statistics

About 20 million Americans are struggling with an addiction to drugs, alcohol, or a combination of the two. That figure represents about 6 percent of the U.S. population. Every one of those individuals is someone who needs professional help, care, and assistance in overcoming both the physical and psychological aspects of addiction.

Though roughly 20 million people struggle with addiction, only about one in ten addicts ever receives treatment for his or her habits.

Constructor is smoking

The lack of access to treatment has taken its toll in many ways. Take, for example, the workplace. About 70 percent of employees report seeing the adverse effects of untreated addiction and substance abuse among the workforce. Furthermore, untreated substance abuse costs businesses anywhere from $2,600 to $13,000 per employee yearly. When an employee is struggling with an addiction, he or she won’t be able to do their job well, and they’ll even pose a safety hazard to themselves and other coworkers. Untreated addiction in the workplace is costly to employers and dangerous to employees.

Another effect of the treatment gap, and perhaps the harshest impact of them all, is simply the sheer loss of life that our country experiences every year because of drug and alcohol addiction. About 88,000 people die from alcohol-related causes every year. More than 702,000 Americans have died from drug overdoses since the turn of the century.

How many tens of thousands of lives would be saved every year if everyone who struggled with addiction had access to treatment?

Yet another result of the lack of treatment is the effect that addiction has on the family members and loved ones of addicts. If there are 20 million Americans who struggle with addiction, that means there are tens of millions of Americans who are the parents, siblings, spouses, grandparents, cousins, and friends of those 20 million addicts. How many lives are forever changed when an addicted son, daughter, grandchild, brother, sister, spouse, or parent dies from a drug overdose? The longer we go on not solving the addiction crisis, the more lives will be lost, the more families will be ruined.

Solutions for Closing the Addiction Treatment Gap

Getting treatment for those who struggle with addiction means all of us making decisive efforts to help addicts get into rehab programs. The person most responsible for getting clean is the addict himself, but the responsibility also falls on the shoulders of family members, employers, community leaders, local, state and federal governments, churches, health advocacy groups, schools, etc.

Employers could invest in addiction treatment for their employees. This may be the financially sensible thing to do, as well as the right thing to do. As we discussed earlier, addiction in the workforce is extremely costly for businesses. And this applies to small businesses as well. Even a business that has only 20 employees is still statistically likely to have at least one employee who suffers from addiction. If employers made sure their employees had access to residential treatment when needed, they would create a safer, more productive, more profitable workforce.

Help an addict

Research shows that one of the leading contributors to the treatment gap is a lack of screening for substance abuse in general healthcare settings. In many cases, treatment isn't even offered to an addict as an option. And that’s because too many people still view drug use as a criminal choice, not a behavioral health problem. It’s essential to create a societal shift in how we view addiction. Once we can all get on the same page that addiction is a severe crisis of both the mind and body and not a criminal inclination, we can start making addiction a significant public health concern rather than a criminal justice matter. This, in effect, is the process of reducing the stigma connected to addiction. Doing so will be crucial in closing the treatment gap.

Some public health institutions are beginning to recognize the crisis of addiction in America. And the solutions we need to address that crisis are not more medications, more incarceration, or more stigma. Far better solutions would include:

  • Increase access to effective treatment in the form of residential drug rehabs.
  • Achieve insurance parity so that health insurance provides coverage for residential drug rehab.
  • Reduce the stigma and criminalization surrounding addiction.
  • Raise awareness among healthcare professionals, addicts, and families in the value of treatment.
  • Train healthcare professionals in identifying addiction and referring addicts into treatment.
  • Increase access to professional interventionists to help convince addicts to seek treatment.

In the words of former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy: “Alcohol and drug addiction take an enormous toll on individuals, families, and communities. Most Americans know someone who has been touched by an alcohol or a drug use disorder. Yet 90 percent of people with a substance use disorder are not getting treatment. That has to change. … We have the opportunity to transform lives and strengthen communities by addressing our country’s addiction crisis. There could not be a more important time for us to act.”

Last but not least, the addicts themselves must take initiative in getting help. This is not a problem we can pin solely on the government, on businesses, or on society in general. People can get better and people can change, but only their own incentive and efforts will create such change. We should help, encourage, and assist addicts in getting treatment, but it ultimately has to be they who make significant efforts toward betterment.

Seeking Help for Your Loved One

Do you have a son or daughter, grandchild, sibling, spouse, parent, loved one, or friend who is struggling with an addiction to drugs and alcohol? If so, getting your family member or loved one into treatment must be the utmost priority. It’s also crucial that you get them into treatment as soon as possible.

Narconon is helping to close the treatment gap every single day. Narconon’s unique program offers unprecedented results, time-tested, and proven in the thousands of Narconon graduates who now live healthy, happy, and sober lives.

Don’t let your loved one get lost in the treatment gap and become just another statistic. Those of us who are the family members of addicts may be the best resource available for closing the treatment gap and for getting addicts help. If you know someone who needs help, make sure they get it today.


Reviewed by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.