There is no prescription for recovery. In a recent op-ed in the Bangor Daily News, Dan Johnson, who oversees a suboxone program, comments that “Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) works, not just because of the medication but because of the essential counseling that should always be attached.” He says that we should be treating MAT as a bridge to extended recovery support, rather than an end in itself.
Substance use disorder is a complex mental health disorder that often has co-occurring issues, both physical and psychological. It affects relationships, the person’s family, their self-esteem, and many other aspects of life. Johnson said, “Opioid addiction hijacks not only people’s brains, but also causes a neurological disorder, and usually steals what is most precious — their lives. Powerful addictions can cause a person’s life and strongly held priorities to be overturned in a very short period.” Counseling, he says, helps a person readjust after severe addiction and have a better chance at returning to normal life.
Medication-assisted treatment is a piece of the recovery puzzle for many people. MAT can help stabilize a person and empower them to show up for appointments, take part in recovery supports, do self-care, and prioritize their health. MAT is not a one-stop solution for many people with substance use disorder; its purpose is “to assist with the therapeutic counseling that should accompany treatment. While medication stabilizes the physical symptoms of addiction, which is a very important part of treatment, counseling helps people rebuild their lives.”
Working hand in hand, prescribers and mental healthcare providers can help people recover by addressing both the physiological and psychological effects of addiction. Once recovery has been initiated and the person’s condition is stable, they can deal with any medical issues that they may have ignored while they were in active addiction. High blood pressure, obesity, chronic pain, depression and other mental illnesses, and Hepatitis B and C are common problems that people in early recovery contend with. Some people go for years with undiagnosed health problems because they were not able to contend with their substance use disorder first. Those problems are not limited to physical illness. Johnson says, “In addition, individuals need to resolve deeply ingrained negative beliefs about themselves and the world. For many, traumatic events from the past are often lying behind the addiction, and their resolution greatly improves people’s quality of life.”
Addiction is a far-reaching illness that affects more people than just the person with substance use disorder. Few people ever receive treatment or medical care of any kind for their addiction: less than 10 percent, according to the 2016 Surgeon General’s report on addiction. For people with opioid use disorder, that number is very slightly better—but anything under 100 percent is not enough. MAT can be an empowering step for people moving toward recovery. When it’s supported by mental health care and other medical care, it can be a critical element in the spectrum of recovery.