April is Alcohol Awareness Month
Margo Kerrigan, M.P.H., Area Director
Indian Health Service California Area Office
April 2006 - Alcohol-related illnesses and injuries are responsible for enormous suffering and financial burden to the national economy. With rates of alcohol dependence in Indian country above the national average, this human and economic toll is multiplied.
Alcohol misuse contributes to the development of many diseases to include cirrhosis, cancer, heart disease, pancreatitis, gastrointestinal illness, dementia and other neurological disorders and fetal alcohol syndrome. In addition to the many death and illnesses attributable to alcohol misuse, alcohol related motor vehicle accidents account for an additional 20,000 deaths per year. In total, it is estimated that alcoholism accounts for the deaths of at least 100,000 Americans per year, nearly twice the number of Americans that died in the eight year Vietnam conflict.
In addition, the economic cost of alcohol misuse is staggering. It is estimated that alcoholism costs the U.S. over $180 billion per year from increased medical costs, human services resources, and lost productivity. This is over 50 times the size of the IHS annual budget.
Though the scope of the problem is enormous, alcohol abuse and dependence are diseases for which there are effective treatments. Brain research in the past two decades has given tremendous insight into how people become addicted to alcohol and other drugs. This has led to the development of medications which decrease the craving for alcohol, and help people to abstain from alcohol. These treatments are added to recovery methods that have been shown to be effective for years including, residential treatment, halfway houses, group homes, individual and group alcohol counseling and 12-step groups.
As a public health professional I have long recognized the impact of this disease process on Indian communities. As a result, I have made addressing this public health problem a top priority. As an outgrowth of my consultative process, I have utilized the Youth Regional Treatment Center (YRTC) Task Force, composed of behavioral health professionals, health programs directors and tribal leaders from throughout the state, to develop a network of care for youth with alcohol and substance abuse disorders. In the last three years we have gone from having no group home/ transitional living centers for youth alcohol treatment to, now, having three. Additionally, I have directed my staff, to find locations for two YRTCs, one in the north and one in the south, and to oversee the construction of these facilities. In fact, I have recently dedicated one of my facilities engineering staff to work on this task full time. It is my vision to have a comprehensive, state-of-the-art youth alcohol and substance abuse treatment system, including two Federally-built and operated YRTCs within five years.
Please help me to address this issue. If you or someone you care about has an alcohol problem, please know that it is not a moral weakness, or a character problem, it is a disease. It is treatable. All of the tribal and urban Indian health programs within California have alcohol treatment services. They can determine if you or a loved one has an alcohol problem, and to assist with recovery and wellness. Please consult our website for treatment services close to you: http://www.ihs.gov/FacilitiesServices/AreaOffices/California/Universal/PageMain.cfm?p=20