An actor’s death sheds light on the need for evidence based addiction treatment

150 150 Christopher Nelson

Any time someone dies from a drug overdose, it is a tragedy. Not just because of the loss of human life, but because it was most likely preventable given the right approach to treating drug addiction.

Sadly, many overdoses go unnoticed. It is only when an Oscar-caliber actor like Phillip Seymour Hoffman succumbs to the disease of drug addiction in his prime that the country takes notice and collectively wonders what could have been done to avert such a massive cultural sucker punch.

As disconnected as Hoffman being found dead with a syringe in his arm after a reported 20 years of sobriety may seem to the world of California corrections, it is most certainly a high profile alarm bell. Hoffman may have benefitted from a more evidence-based approach to drug treatment, just like anyone else suffering from the disease of addiction.

Many inmates in California do not receive the proper treatment for their drug addiction, or as it’s called within the world of corrections, a Substance Use Disorder (SUD). Classifying it as such is an important distinction and sheds light on why such a wealthy and prominent public figure as Hoffman also fell into the exact same boat.

As David Sheff writes for TIME, Hoffmna’s apparent heroin overdose “is a reminder of why we need to move toward evidence-based treatments for addiction,” noting that 90 percent of those who enter treatment centers do not receive cognitive behavioral therapy, motivational interviewing and/or psychopharmacology. Sheff continues:

“We don’t know if Hoffman was, upon discharge from treatment, prescribed medications like Suboxone, which prevents opiate relapse, but it’s unlikely, because most treatment programs eschew them. If he had been (and if he took them as prescribed), it’s almost certain that he’d be alive today. Another medication that may have saved his life is naloxone, a drug that reverses an overdose. All opiate addicts, as well as police and other first responders, should have access to this drug. Also, addicts’ discharge plans should include follow-up treatment, including for co-occurring disorders such as depression, anxiety disorder and others that often accompany addiction.”

Adding to the tragic undertones is the notion that seeking treatment can often make relapses early in the process fatal as tolerance decreases in the early stages of sobriety while cravings remain the same. Hoffman claimed to have been clean for 20 years before re-entering treatment last year. Reportedly, 50 bags containing heroin were found in his apartment at the time of his death.

And if someone of Hoffman’s stature isn’t receiving the most progressive treatments out there, it’s no stretch to assume that those who are incarcerated with SUDs aren’t either. Whether counties choose to adopt such forward thinking approaches to SUDs. Once the paradigm shifts from locking up a career criminal to fighting an illness just like one would any other disease is the problem attacked at the source of what causes so many addicts to recidivate time and time again.

It is a difficult task getting the general public to take a more thoughtful approach to treating those who commit crimes to support a drug habit. It is times likes these when we lose such a prominent cultural icon that the thinking around addiction can actually change. 

The Affordable Care Act provides the financial backbone in the form of federal dollars for counties across California to adopt evidence based approaches to treating SUDs. If someone with all of the resources in the world cannot overcome such a debilitating disease, clearly those who are less fortunate in life need all the help they can get. If you are a county official in California please don’t hesitate to look over exactly how California Forward’s Partnership for Community Excellence is helping shift paradigms in all 58 California counties to take advantage of all the ACA has to offer in SUD treatment and other conditions among California’s vast, incarcerated population.


Christopher Nelson

All stories by: Christopher Nelson