GUEST OPINION: Crisis centers: A better approach to treating substance abuse

Idaho State Journal, by Alexis Zimmers & Dr. Christoper Owens

It is estimated that over half of people who abuse illicit or prescription drugs also have a mental illness. Unfortunately, many who suffer from mental illnesses are too afraid to seek help and may instead turn to drugs or alcohol to “treat” their anxiety, depression, or other symptoms.

This creates a vicious cycle of use and abuse that in turn worsens their mental health and has major social consequences as well. Sadly, during their course of their illness some have employment difficulties, run into legal problems, and may be incarcerated — all without ever addressing the true root of the issue.

The State of Idaho spends nearly $40 million annually to incarcerate drug offenders.

While some offenders undoubtedly require incarceration for their crimes, there are some for whom this approach is clearly not helpful. Furthermore, at least some of this money could better be spent on more constructive ways of dealing with the issue overall, as well as on other important and related programs such as health, education, and public safety.

In addition to increasing numbers of people going to jail for substance abuse-related problems, it is also important to note that the number of drug-related emergency room visits has increased by over 80% in the last 15 years, with an estimated 4.6 million drug-related emergency room visits according to the most recent data. Emergency room visits are not only expensive, but are also not the most appropriate way to deal with mental health and drug abuse problems.

When combined, unnecessary incarceration and visits to the emergency room have enormous social consequences and cost taxpayers millions upon millions of dollars. By providing a better alternative to repeated stints in jail or the hospital, a different approach could relieve the burden on our medical and judicial systems, cut down on unnecessary costs, and most importantly, save and improve the quality of countless lives.

One effective approach to dealing with this problem is the creation of community crisis centers. Such centers provide an invaluable resource for individuals struggling with mental health and drug abuse problems – often before they run into legal trouble. These centers help provide support for patients and their families, link patients to ongoing treatment services and community resources, and help people make life changes and more constructive plans for their future.

The proposed Bannock County Crisis Care Center would act as a bridge to proper treatment for struggling individuals from all walks of life. Case managers, social workers, and healthcare professionals could give patients access to necessary resources by acting as a point of entry to the healthcare system. This strategy puts people on the right track from the start, which increases their chances of being able to cope and deal more effectively with the problems they may have.

The faculty and students at the Idaho State University College of Pharmacy are committed to helping our fellow community members in need. As medication experts, pharmacists have the ability to counsel patients on proper medication use and can work with prescribers of medications to provide the best care possible. Within our community, pharmacists are also engaged in educating people about the dangers of drug misuse and abuse, and by watching out for those who may be starting down a dangerous path.

The proposed Behavioral Care Center, which includes a Crisis Care Center, Stabilization and Treatment Center, and court and jail alternatives, would be a huge step forward in the treatment of mental illness and drug abuse problems within our community. The ISU College of Pharmacy is a part of an Alliance for a Healthy and Safe Community which supports the establishment of such a center and providing a safe place for at-risk individuals as well as critical resources for them and their families.

We encourage everyone to support the proposed Behavioral Care Center in Bannock County, which is on the ballot for November 7. More information is available at This is an important part of a better approach to dealing with the growing issue of substance abuse in our community.

Alexis Zimmers is a second-year pharmacy student at ISU College of Pharmacy and co-chair of Generation Rx, a student-led outreach initiative to educate people about the safe use of medications.

Dr. Christopher Owens is faculty member at the ISU College of Pharmacy and associate vice president of health sciences at Idaho State University.

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Copyright 2017 Idaho State Journal