By Patrick Evans and Lisa Rogers
The August open letter written by South King County mayors about crime and addiction related issues made headlines for its stark message. As an organization that has been part of the South King County community for decades, Sound agrees that more must be done to address crime, addiction and other related issues that plague South King County and King County as a whole.
There is little doubt that the pandemic exacerbated all of these issues. Substance and alcohol use, of course, surged throughout King County, according to a 2020 report by the Seattle and King County Public Health Department. Increased anxiety, stress and depression, coupled with severely limited support and referrals due to the pandemic, were factors. We will elaborate on this critical issue later. First, we believe that two statements in the mayor letter merit further illumination: the relationship between criminality and addiction and perceptions about access to addiction treatment.
First, though addiction and crime have increased in South King County and elsewhere, we caution against conflating the two wholesale. Certainly, some incidences of crime can be linked to substance use or addiction. In our experience, many residents in South King County (and elsewhere) grappling with addiction do not commit crimes; they often struggle quietly and without incident, steadily succumbing to the disease. These individuals require more support and empathy to address their disease — and conflating crime with addiction wholesale can stigmatize and potentially present barriers to seeking treatment.
The letter also asserted that “drug and alcohol treatment are expensive and hard to find,” but we believe that there are resources and providers, like Sound, that offer addiction and mental health treatment that are not only geographically accessible, but at no cost as well, for people who have Medicaid insurance. Private insurance treatment is widely available in the community through other organizations.
As cited before, the pandemic certainly played a role in crime and addiction. Something often overlooked, however, is the crucial role the pandemic played in disrupting formal and informal sources of referral for the countless individuals who struggle with addiction. With the pandemic shutting down impactful and influential systems such community centers and primary care, referrals slowed. Even more devastating was how the pandemic isolated vulnerable people from people who carry the greatest influence: family, friends, colleagues and loved ones. With greater isolation, the vulnerable lose connection and family, friends and neighbors are not available to recognize issues and encourage getting into treatment.
As pandemic restrictions are lifted and people get back out into communities and re-engage, we believe that now is the right time for community members to recognize their critical role in promoting a more stable environment. Now is their time to reconnect, recognize and act on behalf family, friends, neighbors or co-workers struggling with addiction. Services are available and organizations do exist to offer support. The “rainbow” fentanyl counterfeit pills, now showing up in the community with greater frequency, serve as a chilling reminder that our community needs to be more vigilant than ever.
For many individuals struggling with addiction, law enforcement and legal interventions cannot substitute the influence of friends, family, employers, loved ones and neighbors. While there is a place for legal interventions, the power to change the lives and choices of individuals struggling with addiction, and to steer them toward recovery, begins first with those who have earned trust and faith (and therefore, influence) earned through long term relationships. With the legislative and law enforcement landscape changing everyone’s outlook on crime, we must not forget that addiction is a disease and that help and support is available.
Patrick Evans is President and CEO of Sound, and Lisa Rogers is Director of Substance Use Disorder Services at Sound. Sound is one of King County’s largest providers of mental health and addiction treatment services with South County addiction treatment facilities in Kent and Auburn. Visit www.sound.health/addiction-treatment-services.