All I felt was fear.
I stood in front of my friend, the first real friend I’d ever had. She was high, disheveled and skinnier than I had ever seen her before, and I realized there was nothing I could do to save her from herself.
I was not equipped to handle the deep despair she felt or help her navigate the trauma of her past. I left her house that day worried for her two little boys, my godsons.
I never saw their mother alive again.
Her boys were one and six — only a few years younger than their mother when she was first incarcerated at age seven.
Britney was only 28 years old when addiction claimed her life. In the three years that have separated me from the day I learned from her father the terrible news, I have come to realize it is time for us as a society to invest in social programs aimed at helping individuals struggling with addiction instead of incarcerating them.
Maybe if we had, she’d still be here. Maybe if we do, we can save the life of someone else’s friend, someone else’s mother.
The last time I saw her, Brittney was experiencing what so many others who are addicted have experienced — isolation and hopelessness.
“The opposite of addiction is connection,” said Darlene Schultz, who runs support groups for the families of addicts at Utah Support Advocates for Recovery Awareness. “If there is no connection it will be hard to be successful.”
Schultz was left financially ruined after putting her two sons into treatment. She now runs a program called Community Reinforcement and Family Training, and it is important to her that the program is free for all families needing help.
“We have spent enough as family members and we shouldn’t have to pay for treatment,” she said.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, substance abuse costs American taxpayers $600 billion annually. Treatment is less expensive than the alternatives. On average it costs $4,700 per patient for a year of methadone — a therapy used to treat the side effects of withdrawal for people addicted to heroin or other opiates. In contrast, it costs $24,000 for one addict to be incarcerated for a year.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse has reported that every dollar invested in addiction treatment programs yields a return of up to $7 in reduced societal costs. The authors of the study from which that figure is derived wrote that when savings related to healthcare are included, the ratio of savings to costs can exceed 12 to 1.
There are free treatment options for some, but the problem addicts face is that most free clinics have a waiting list.
According to Cristina Redko, a researcher who studies drug interventions and treatment at Wright State University in Ohio, this waiting period is a common barrier — the longer an addict has to wait, the less likely they are to follow through with treatment.
“If the waiting period is more than a few days this allows the addict to go get street drugs,” Redko recently told me.
This waiting period can elicit irrational and desperate behavior. Some addicts will commit criminal offenses, hoping to be arrested so they can get treatment in jail.
“It won’t be good treatment,” Redko said, “but at least it’s something.”
Others will binge or overdose as a way to fast-track their way into treatment.
Redko’s research has revealed that 50% of substance abusers do not follow through with treatment if they are put on a wait list. For these addicts getting into treatment is a matter of life and death.
“There needs to be a reorganization of resources,” Redko said.
She’s right. And it’s not hard to see where that restructuring needs to begin. As soon as we stop incarcerating so many addicts, we can start treating them.
If we do, we could save a lot of people who are just like my friend.
My friendship with Brittney — and my grief when she died — changed my life. I found myself devastated by the consequences of addiction. The pain overwhelmed me. I couldn’t sleep. I would awaken in the middle of the night thinking of her.
There is no reason why anyone needs to go through what I’ve gone through.
Either way we will pay for this crisis. Why would we spend more to incarcerate an addict when we could send them to treatment for less?
Kerry Barto is a student journalist at Utah State University and will be graduating next May. She says she’s passionate about the world of news and looks forward to reporting on current events.