The following is a conversation between Jim Hood, Co-founder and CEO of Facing Addiction, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: The spike in addiction to opioids… which has tripled in the last 15 years… has been in the news of late. But that is just one piece of the addiction crisis that is ravaging this country — a crisis which includes alcohol and so many other drugs. Now, a relatively young organization has sprung into action to fashion a more comprehensive and thoughtful approach to this grave challenge. It’s called Facing Addiction, and with us tonight is its co-founder and CEO, Jim Hood.
Good evening, Jim, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Jim: Good evening. Thank you so much for having me on the program. I’m grateful to you.
Denver: You have a deeply personal connection to this issue, which spurred you on to start facing addiction. Share that with us if you would.
Jim: Well I do, Denver. My oldest boy, Austin Hood, started struggling with alcohol when he was 13 or maybe just 14…obviously, very troublesome very early. I’m aware that kids do this stuff, and they dabble, and they experiment. But that was early and it was troublesome. Long story short, it got worse quickly. Within a year, we knew he was smoking marijuana. A year after that, we knew he was using the pills, the opioids that you hear about now, which is a fancy word for pain pills for your audience. And obviously, none of that is good. But the alcohol and the marijuana is one level of danger, and then when kids — and it is usually kids in America, young adults — when they slip into using the opioids, the risks go up exponentially.
So we sought every form of help and treatment for Austin, and he got better. It was a hell of a journey. It was a half-million-dollar journey, which is another whole story — wilderness programs, therapeutic boarding school, lots and lots of therapists. In retrospect, some who were not qualified – another story. But he got better, was off at college and really doing well. And then I got the phone call that would bring any parent to their knees… that my boy was dead. They found him dead. He overdosed. I obviously don’t know the story of why he went back, why he started using. Was it a one-time thing? But it changes your life, and it motivated me to leave a fairly successful career and not be a hero, but see if I couldn’t do something with others, to do something about this thing that is literally eating us alive and is stealing a generation of our kids.
If a loved one gets cancer or heart disease, it’s equally tragic… Here, every day is a crapshoot. They call it a “do-it-yourself illness.” Not the getting part of it, but the what-do-you-do-about-it.
Denver: While your son was battling addiction, what was it like for you as a father to get good, reliable information and guidance on what to do? What sources did you turn to?
Jim: That’s such a smart question. The answer is — it’s brutal. It’s hell because you don’t go to doctors often times because they are not trained. We can go into how that could be and why that is. You go online like we do to get information about anything else, but you realize first that you’re out of your depth because you have no experience hopefully in this business; and as time will tell, much of the information online is not accurate. Many of the services and quotes being provided are not bonafide, and so it really is the Wild West trying to find help. And it is not like that for any other illness in America. If a loved one gets cancer or heart disease, it’s equally tragic. But you know what to do, you know where to turn. You have confidence that at the moment, you’re doing the best that you can for your loved one. Here, every day is a crapshoot. They call it a do-it-yourself illness. Not the getting part of it, but the what-do-you-do-about-it.
Denver: Yeah, it sounds like a Tower of Babel. Give us an idea in numbers, if you could, Jim, of the breadth and magnitude and scope of this addiction crisis across America today.
Jim: It is staggering for your audience. It is absolutely staggering. The Surgeon General…so this is not a made-up figure… the Surgeon General will tell you that there are approximately 21 million people currently addicted to alcohol or other drugs. That is roughly the same number as those who have diabetes in this country, which we know is a crisis. And it’s one-and-a-half times as many people as have all cancers combined. Interestingly, there is another 23 million people, similar number but a different audience who are in recovery. I don’t want to conflate the two. Recovery is a miracle, and it’s a blessing, but this is a chronic illness. So, recovery doesn’t mean you’re done. It just means, so far, it’s good. You put those two together, you have 43 to 44 million people — that’s one in three households in America — and frankly, that doesn’t even include families of loss like mine, of which there are over 2 million just since the year 2000.
There is clearly something going on where our youth, and again, I keep stressing this because 90-odd percent of the time, addiction starts in adolescence… whether it’s social pressures, academic pressures, there is clearly, I think, something going on where our kids lead too stressful, too worrisome lives.
Denver: My goodness. Well, with these numbers, as I mentioned earlier, the opioid crisis has tripled in the last 15 years. Why are so many people, particularly young people, becoming addicted to one drug or another? What are some of the factors at play?
Jim: Well, it is a profoundly complex problem, Denver. I’m not a psychologist or sociologist. There is clearly something going on where our youth, and again, I keep stressing this because 90-odd percent of the time, addiction starts in adolescence. And I think whether it’s social pressures, academic pressures, there is clearly something going on where our kids lead too stressful, too worrisome lives. I mean, addiction is the topic today, but you look at depression and ADD and ADHD and other mental ailments.
But there clearly is something going on in this country. Having said that, it is made exponentially worse by these from-the-devil manufacturers of these opioids who crank out pills like Tic Tacs… far more than anybody can possibly justify. You have doctors who prescribe this stuff like Tic Tacs. In some cases, a person has a wisdom tooth taken out, and they get three weeks’ worth of pain pills. It’s enough to sedate Guatemala, and you had two teeth taken out. In some cases, some extra-strength Tylenol or Advil honestly would do the trick. So you have a supply problem, you have an over-prescription problem in addition to whatever might be going on psychologically. And man, that is a – it’s a perfect, perfect storm.
Denver: Yeah, it’s a lethal combination.
Jim: It is a literally lethal combination. And then of course, when kids no longer can get pills, buy pills, steal pills, or need to go on, heroin has never been more plentiful and cheaper than it is in this country today. Because, really, most of these pills are essentially some manufactured, purified–we hope–form of heroin. The kids go on, young adults go on to heroin.
Denver: Often laced with Fentanyl.
Jim: Often laced with Fentanyl, which is hard to imagine that we’re here saying, “Boy, the good old days when heroin was pure!” because that wasn’t exactly the gold standard.
Denver: How many people who suffer from addiction get no treatment whatsoever?
Jim: Ninety percent do not ever receive any treatment. Flipped around, only 1 in 10 people suffering from addiction ever receive any treatment. As the Surgeon General said, if that were — fill in the blank: diabetes, cancer, heart disease, or something – it is unthinkable.
Jim: There would be riots in the street. There would be protests.
Denver: You know, you’ve wondered aloud with the devastating impact that addiction has, especially among these young people, why there is so little outrage about this crisis? Why do you think that is the case?
Jim: It’s something that I struggle with, we struggle with all the time. And I suspect it is rooted ultimately in the shame and the denial and the stigma that surround this issue. Kind of relates to why only 10% ever get help. Some of them want help and don’t know where to turn, maybe can’t afford it. But a lot of it is stigma, shame, denial. The person suffering, even sometimes people around them suffering. And so if you have this damn thing as pervasive as it is sort of shrouded in this cloud of “My son’s really not addicted. He’s just struggling with something these days,” that tends to tamp down the potential for outrage. But there sure as hell needs to be outrage because, as I said, one in three households is impacted by this thing, and it’s growing.
Denver: Let me get your take on a couple of things that are currently going on. What is your take on most of the prevention programs in this country… the ones that are offered in public schools?
Jim: It’s a real problem. The most prevalent program is this thing called D.A.R.E. It’s been in our public schools for decades. Literally decades. And there is empirical evidence that D.A.R.E. simply does not work. But for reasons that probably exceed my pay grade, it’s entrenched, it’s funded. There is a sort of a habit of “I’m an administrator. I’m a principal. Officer Muldoon comes in every year. By the way, he’s a wonderful guy, and he does this thing, and we check the box saying we have a prevention program…” And it simply doesn’t work, and we’ve got to get more serious about it.
Denver: As a matter of fact, it not only doesn’t work, I know there’s empirical evidence which says it has the opposite effect.
Jim: I think that’s right. It’s marginal, and somebody would say: Don’t get carried away with it. Then you say, “Wait! Wait! Wait! Marginally in the wrong direction for a prevention program? The data for which should be dramatically in the other direction– that it helps.” There are other things. There is a program called CRAFT that is an acronym for community, something or other. It’s deeper than we probably want to go into with the audience today, but there are programs that are showing promise. Not all of them have been used broadly and used for years, but we simply have to focus more attention on the things that have shown promise and scuttle the one that is so broadly used and we know doesn’t work. I mean it doesn’t take a genius to figure out it’s time to move on from D.A.R.E and use some of these other more effective things.
…pediatricians have no training in addiction because they didn’t get it in medical school…
Denver: And I think so many of those are giving kids something different to do, an alternative method of dealing with stress. Just telling them “No!” is never going to work. Don’t use drugs. You should know that by now.
Jim: Absolutely, an after-school activity and community involvement. I don’t mean to sound sort of holier- than-thou, but that stuff matters. More integration with the family, and the ability to try to identify kids who are at higher risk and focus on them, rather than sort of a blanket approach. And who’s at higher risk? Well, kids who show other symptoms like anxiety or depression; families that have had a history of alcohol or drug challenges. It is not that hard to find the kids who are higher risk and then focus our efforts on them.
Very briefly, here’s a problem that attaches to that. Remember, we said 90% of the time, addiction starts in adolescence? Almost every kid in this country gets a physical every year because schools require it. That’s a wonderful thing. But then you go back to the reality–and I’m just kind of reporting the facts–that in the main, pediatricians have no training in addiction because they didn’t get it in medical school. It isn’t their fault.
But literally even today, there are figures about people coming out of medical school have four hours or eight hours; if that’s wrong, double it or triple it. We’re talking about four years of education and a single-digit number of hours — what’s the ramification of all that? Mom and Dad take Billy and Sally to the pediatrician who will talk to them about eating-potentially disorders, bullying, sex, safe sex, the risks of sex. Hello! Where’s the addiction screening? Imagine that safety net. But that safety net’s got a massive hole in it because again, in the main, our pediatricians don’t know what to do about this issue.
Denver: Exactly. It’s so much easier to go where they are than trying to seek them out, and here they are passing through doctors offices… nearly 90% every single year, and that’s a great place for it. How would you describe the role of law enforcement? Do you think that they’re playing an effective role in this crisis?
Jim: Well, you know I have all the respect in the world for law enforcement. I think, first and foremost, they’re playing catch-up. We talked to an awful lot of police chiefs and others whose jobs… and the jobs of their officers now, it just seems to be responding to one overdose call after the next. I mean, they are overwhelmed. I think, again, for the most part, they do a tremendous job, but they’re sort of at the end of the pipeline. They’re not the ones who are going to prevent and educate. They’re doing all they can to save lives.
Now, I will say some law enforcement in America has become quite enlightened. Some jurisdictions and towns where you get somebody who’s overdosed or has drugs on them…rather than arrest them, they try mightily to get them into the healthcare system, get them better rather than get them incarcerated, and that’s clearly a step in the right direction. It’s not only more humanitarian. It’s economically more beneficial to society overall. Our prisons are crowded with people who have substance-use issues. It doesn’t get you better by locking them up. I think law enforcement does the best they can, but they’re overwhelmed. They’re absolutely overwhelmed by this stuff.
Denver: It’s good to see it’s becoming less of a criminal justice issue and more of a health issue. But it’s certainly a long way from being where it should.
Jim: Absolutely. It’s something we try to do. Towns have got to work on that. Of course, one of the issues is if you don’t lock these people up–and you shouldn’t–do you have the right resources in that community to get them the treatment they need? Because not locking them up is the right step. But simply taking them to the ER, getting them stabilized or detoxed, and putting them back out in the street probably isn’t going to end well. So, there needs to be a pathway for them to get better, as opposed to getting locked up.
Denver: Well, you’ve laid out the challenge in front of us very well. So, it was back in, I think, October 2015, that you launched Facing Addiction. What is the mission, and what are the objectives of the organization?
Jim: The mission really is to end the cost and the pain… the impact of addiction in this country, or at least reduce it every year until it’s no longer a crisis. Honestly, Denver, the elevator pitch is: astonishingly, there has never been, if you will, the American Cancer Society or American Heart Association or, by the way, diabetes, emphysema, leukemia, autism, Alzheimer’s, for the addiction space. In the simplest terms, we’re trying to create the American Cancer Society of the addiction space. The place that first of all people turn to for reliable information, that beacon that people can say, “Oh I get it. They are creating the programs to address and reduce this crisis,” whether it’s awareness education, whether it’s to help with prevention, things like we just talked about, whether it’s laws that need to be changed to facilitate progress. We’re simply trying – we’re not a service provider.
Denver: You’re an umbrella group, really, right?
Jim: We’re building an umbrella group because it has never existed in the space. We’re trying to slay a dragon. We need a formidable force on the other side to slay that dragon.
The real thing of rebranding addiction is to get people to understand it’s an illness. Not a moral failing. We need to love those people just like we love and are concerned about people who have other illnesses.
Denver: One of the key elements of your strategy is rebranding addiction. Explain what you’re seeking to do here and how you’re going about that.
Jim: Good question. I probably, for better or worse, coined that phrase because I have a bit of a marketing background. Let me be crystal clear. In rebranding addiction, reframing it if people like; we’re not trying to make it cool or sexy. We’re trying to get people to understand this is an illness. There may be a debate about whether it is. But it is a fact. It is an irrefutable fact that addiction is an illness. Bad things happen to good people. I can guarantee you my son didn’t sit around and say,” I think it would be kind of interesting to become addicted. That looks attractive. I want to try that. And by the way, I want to die.”
It is a ridiculous notion that people choose to become addicted, any more than people choose to have cancer or heart disease. And I’m not trying to lecture or be pedantic, but you still have something like half of the country that does not believe addiction is an illness. And the problem with that; somebody could say, “who cares?”. The problem of that is human nature. If you don’t think addiction is an illness, then you’re inclined, whether you use these words or not, to think: “ That guy or that girl chose to do what she did or he did. It ended up badly. But ultimately, it’s their fault. What do you want from me?”
Denver: It’s a moral failing.
Jim: It’s a moral failing. What am I supposed to do about your weakness? But if you see it through the lens that this is just the same – these people want to grow up, and they want to be moms and dads and husbands and wives and researchers and presidents and astronauts; and they got an illness that potentially could kill them… just as if they might have gotten cancer or heart disease. We need for society, writ large, to kick in and do the same things that we do when people get those other terrible, terrible illnesses. The real thing of rebranding addiction is to get people to understand it’s an illness. Not a moral failing. We need to love those people, just like we love and are concerned about people who have other illnesses.
Denver: What are some of your efforts in trying to do that?
Jim: In some ways, the event on the National Mall on October 15. And we still, Denver… Every day people talk to us about that. It was a huge coming out for folks. It was the beginning of ending the silence. It certainly didn’t end it. It was the beginning of destigmatizing this. There are hundreds of thousands, probably now millions of people around the country who are in recovery and won’t even talk about the fact that they were once addicted because you’ll judge me. Or I won’t get that next promotion. Or my significant other will think less of me. Really, it’s preposterous when you think that if you had cancer, then God bless you if you did, and God bless you that you’re still here. But would you be ashamed to say: I had cancer, and I’ve got to watch out at work because I probably won’t get that next promotion? Or: she won’t love me? It’s unbelievable! So, we have a bunch of programs, and we’re planning some things in 2018 that we hope will be on a larger scale, but we need a broad public awareness, campaign.
Denver: You’ve got to change some mindsets.
Jim: Not unlike what they did with the anti-smoking, anti-tobacco messaging that took a long time. But my goodness, how it changed America’s perceptions about smoking! We must, and we can do the same thing with addiction.
Denver: With this belief that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, you have formed this Action Network. Tell us about some of the people who are part of that Action Network and some of the things that they’re setting out to do.
Jim: Sure. Some of the folks on our team, who are just miracle workers in my humble view, have worked to cobble together many organizations around the country who care about this issue. But some of them are small; not all. Some are small. But the simple belief is: if we join our voices together, we will have more impact. One simple example of that is, there was a time a few weeks ago, a few months ago I guess now; a 60 Minutes show talked about a potential candidate that the president had nominated for the drug czar, ONDCP. I won’t go into the story except to say: a very bad idea. We turned on the Action Network, and the next day, if my recollection is good, we literally flooded the White House switchboard. I think we got something like 17,000 phone calls to the White House switchboard. Action Network is simply bringing a lot of people who care about this issue together to create a more powerful voice, and we certainly demonstrate that frequently.
Denver: Are there things that other nations are doing, Jim, that have been successful? I know one that comes to mind for me is Iceland. They used to be the worst in Europe, and they came up with some programs and have turned it around where they’re first. And the declines in alcohol and drugs and opioids and everything and tobacco have truly been staggering. Do you look overseas now and again and look at some countries and some of the programs that say, “Boy, I certainly would like to try that over here!”
Jim: Well, Denver, I’m not an expert at that. But yes, Iceland is a very interesting example. Portugal is one that people talk about a lot. In general, and you touched upon it earlier, it appears that countries that have a more enlightened approach and decriminalize… not necessarily go all the way to legalize, but decriminalize the use of drugs — alcohol and other drugs — and put more emphasis on prevention and getting help for those who are in trouble. I’m not talking about selling drugs. The use is put all the emphasis on prevention and helping those in trouble and take all the emphasis away from criminalization. I think there are things to be learned from that. And of course, those governments typically invest quite a great deal of money into those solutions. We’re sort of stuck in America, and I don’t want to get political in this conversation, but the talk of how serious this crisis is, is plentiful. Action, not so much.
These other countries follow up their policies with investment. We do have one stickler here, and it goes back to something you asked before. America has about 5% of the world’s population. We see all these statistics, and we have a quarter of the world’s prisoners makes you scratch your head. But America consumes if I’m not mistaken, something like 82% of the world’s opioids; 5% of the population, 82% of the opioids. That does make our addiction issue, crisis if you will, unique.
Denver: Sticking with funding for a minute, you talked a little bit about government. Let’s talk about the private sector as well. Are these addiction programs, organizations, entities getting the kind of level of support, or is it woefully short?
Jim: It is woefully short. They are absolutely not getting the funding they need, and you might expect somebody who does what I do for a living to say that. But it’s backed by data. If you were to look at public data for.. and we’re talking about public funding. What that means from individuals, particularly from individuals, corporations and foundations. But if you looked at public funding, not government funding for cancer, for heart disease, for diabetes… you will see figures close or exceeding $ 1 billion dollars a year. As it should be. These are monstrously big issues.
In the addiction space, Denver, you’d be hard-pressed if you looked at all these little organizations and added up their funding or budgets, you’d be hard-pressed to get to $50 million, maybe $30 million; literally, million dollars. No matter how you look at it compared to other organizations or on a per-capita basis for the number of people who are sick… Or if you look at it in terms of the proven ROI, return on investment, when we try to solve this problem, we desperately need more funding.
Denver: Let me close with this, Jim. You’ve asked: where is the outrage and urgency around the crisis that is the equivalent of bringing down a jetliner filled with passengers every single day of the year? Are you optimistic that this crisis is going to receive the attention and funding it does deserve? And if so, what is going to have to happen for that to occur?
Jim: Well, I am optimistic. You can imagine. You have to be in this line of work. You simply have to be. But it is heartbreaking, and I use that metaphor because I just think it’s apt. I think of all these young adults like my son, filling up an airplane going to Europe to do international study abroad, and that plane falling out of the sky, every day, with no survivors. It is staggering to think of it. We lose twice as many people to addiction every year as we did through the whole Vietnam saga.
What has to happen, I think, is mere mortals out there who care about this issue need to understand there is hope; there is hope. There is something that can be done about it, and there’s an organization doing something about it. At the risk of just being shamefully honest, people who care should just say, “I’m going to send ten dollars a month to Facing Addiction and help end this crisis.” Because, remember those 45 million people I said who were impacted? With ten dollars a month, we would raise that kind of money that cancer and heart and diabetes raise, and we would make enormous impact in the next five years.
Denver: Well, Jim Hood, the co-founder and CEO of Facing Addiction, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. Tell us about your website which may be more important than many others, the kind of information people can find there. And to pick up on your last point: how they can become involved and financially support this campaign if they should be so inclined.
Jim: Sure. Great informational resources. It’s www.facingaddiction.org and obviously, there’s a link there to donate, and we would be enormously grateful if people would make a monthly contribution.
Denver: Thanks so much, Jim. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program.
Jim: Thank you, Denver.
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