Federal Grant Signals a Call for Greater Empathy to Inform Our Approach to Addiction
A recent U.S. News & World Report article by Diana Krishnan of Rush University Medical Hospital in Chicago cited the first “harm reduction” grant from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) as an indication of U.S. efforts to view those afflicted by substance use disorders with more empathy.
Commenting on SAMHSA’s $30 million grant aimed at increasing community harm reduction services and support harm reduction service providers, Krishnan said, “This new program demonstrates the urgent need to approach the national addiction crisis with a broader view undergirded by empathy. It is necessary for all players in this public health crisis to better recognize, understand and even share the feelings and experiences of those who are addicted.”
The stated goal of the SAMHSA grant is to “help prevent overdose deaths and reduce health risks often associated with drug use.”
According to SAMHSA’s press release when the grant was announced in December 2021, the allocated funds are part of an initiative launched by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) in October 2021 called its “Overdose Prevention Strategy.”
Per the announcement, this initiative is to “prevent overdoses and save lives by ensuring equitable access to essential health care and support services without stigma.” And this unprecedented approach to health care provision for addicts is just one of several actions steps HHS has laid out in their 4-part strategy:
- Primary Prevention: Preventing substance use disorder is the first step toward addressing overdoses. (The HHS website offers information about effective prevention programs and safe prescribing practices.)
- Harm Reduction: Harm reduction is critical to keeping people who use drugs alive and as healthy as possible. (HHS encourages people to read the research and help reduce the stigma.)
- Evidence-Based Treatment: When a person is ready, high-quality treatment must be available without delay. (This HHS strategy seeks to help improve access to treatment.)
- Recovery Support: Recovery support services can lead to better long-term outcomes, especially when available in communities where they are needed. (HHS urges people to explore the different types of recovery service options available.)
A cursory review of the grim statistics regarding the current opioid-fueled drug epidemic demonstrates such a program could not come at a better time. Data provided by the CDC’s National Vital Statistics System point to a 250% increase in deaths associated with drug overdoses over the past 20 years (1999 – 2019) and a 50-fold rise in deaths involving synthetic opioids (e.g., Fentanyl).
Given the U.S. has also just witnessed—for the first time—100,000 drug overdose deaths in a 12-month period, “the need is clear,” says Dr. Rahul Gupta, National Drug Control Policy Director. “The reality is, evidence-based harm reduction services are out of reach for far too many people. Building on the Administration’s efforts to expand evidence-based prevention, treatment and recovery support services, this historic funding will help make harm reduction services more accessible, so we can meet people where they are and save lives.”
HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra concluded, “Americans deserve health services that address the full range of drug use and addiction issues, and this funding will help provide those services in the neighborhoods in which they live.”
 Krishnan, D. “Let Empathy Inform Our Approach to Addiction.” U.S. News & World Report. March 11. 2022.
 U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services. “SAMHSA Announces Unprecedented $30 Million Harm Reduction Grant Funding Opportunity to Help Address the Nation’s Substance Use and Overdose Epidemic.” Dec. 8, 2021.
 U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services. “Overdose Prevention Strategy.” Oct. 2021.
 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Drug Overdose Deaths.” National Vital Statistics System. 2019.