Experts: WVU, state surprised by magnitude of addiction problems


MORGANTOWN — Experts at West Virginia University began to suspect more than a decade ago that substance abuse issues were impacting the state, but they didn’t realize how much — and how quickly — the problem would escalate.

And they believe West Virginia’s substance abuse problems haven’t yet peaked.

Dr. Marc Haut, professor and chair of the WVU Department of Behavioral Medicine and Psychiatry, provided additional insights into the state’s addiction problems after delivering keynote remarks during WVU’s recent Academic Media Day in Morgantown.

“We had some sense in the 2000s that it was happening,” Haut said. “The person who had the biggest sense of it was (Dr. Carl) Sullivan, who has done treatment here for many, many years. He had some sense of where we were going. But the extent and magnitude has surprised a lot of people. We’re not surprised anymore, and we know this hasn’t peaked yet. We had an inkling, but not about how bad it would be.”

West Virginia leads the country in the number of annual deaths per capita attributed to substance abuse, and in the per-capita number of infants born dependent on substances.

The problem over the years was fueled as many West Virginians have continued to deny they or anyone in their family has a substance abuse problem, or that they knew anyone who was an addict, according to Haut. He said he once suggested a new clinic be constructed to offer drug addiction counseling, and this was met with resistance.

“‘No, we shouldn’t do that,'” Haut said he was told. “‘Grandma is not going want to sit next to the addicts.’ I said, ‘Grandma is one of the addicts, most likely.’ Individuals with substance abuse problems are everywhere and you don’t realize it. They hide it, and don’t talk about it. That’s the key problem.”

Haut said it is necessary for health care professionals to work toward decreasing the stigma associated with substance addiction, while increasing conversation and interest about the issue.

President Donald Trump last month declared opioid addiction a national public health emergency. Largely, though, the response by officials at the national level to the country’s opioid addiction problem has been “slow” and “disappointing,” according to Haut.

“But that’s in part how our system works,” he said. “It worked a little slower than I would have liked to have seen it work. There’s a lot of influences on this. And if you take this particular problems, there is still a lot of stigma associated with this. That slows down the process also. If this was heart disease we were talking about, there’s less stigma and we would have gotten quicker traction. But this is addiction and substance abuse, and there’s still a stigma associated with it — and that slows down the already-slow wheels.”

If health care providers approach the drug addiction problem like they would any other disease, this will “set the stage for other people to see that and to realize that,” Haut said.

“What you have to do is you have to educate people, and that’s everybody — and not just the community, but other treatment providers,” Haut said. “Sometimes an individual with a substance abuse disorder is being treated for another medical problem. And if they’re tagged for having a substance abuse disorder, they are treated differently — and that’s not acceptable. We have to work with all health care providers to help them understand.

“If you have someone with heart disease and diabetes, do you treat them the same as if they have heart disease alone or diabetes alone? Why should you treat someone with a substance abuse disorder and diabetes any differently? They should be treated the same. We have to educate our current providers, and the next generation of providers, that this is just like any other disease out there.”