Ben Carson: An Embarrassment When It Comes to Addiction

Dr. Ben Carson is a Republican candidate for President and a retired neurosurgeon. As of 11/10/2015, he is the front-runner for the GOP nomination (without digressing too much into the nomination process, I believe Dr. Carson and Mr. Trump only have minuscule shots at the nomination. In the end, the Republican establishment will coalesce behind someone who is more acceptable to them). Dr. Carson recently made the Sunday talk show rounds and was asked what causes addiction and what is the best way to treat it (you can watch his response here). Despite my belief that he has an infinitesimal chance at the nomination, I feel forced to respond to his comments regarding addiction and treatment because he is on TV and he is effecting the national conversation on addiction and treatment. This is a bit of a low-hanging fruit, but sometimes I can neither hold my tongue nor restrain my pen.

John Dickerson: What’s the human side of addiction? Where does it come from? How should it best be treated?

Dr. Ben Carson: Usually addictions occur in people who are vulnerable, who are lacking something in their lives. We have to really start asking ourselves, what have we taken out of our lives in America? What are some of those values and principles that allowed us to ascend the ladder of success so rapidly to the very pinnacle of the world and the highest pinnacle anyone else had ever reached, and why are we in the process of throwing away all of our values and principles for the sake of political correctness.

He did not even attempt to answer the question about how we should treat addiction. As far as where it comes from, he did not really answer that either, instead choosing to talk about political correctness and values. While there are many vulnerable people who become addicted, there are some who have all the advantages in the world and still become addicted. I wish Dr. Carson was aware of three Presidential families and their struggles with addiction.

John Adams was a Harvard educated lawyer, had an incredible wife and was the second President of the United States. His eldest son, John Quincy, was elected as the sixth US President in 1824. His son Charles died from alcoholism at the age of 30 in 1800. His father occupied the White House when he died. Charles had every advantage possible and yet still succumbed to alcoholism. He was not vulnerable. And, I’m sure, he was raised with outstanding values. And he still died from alcoholism.

Theodore Roosevelt was born into a wealthy New York family in the middle of the 19th century. He had outstanding parents and received a fantastic education. He became President in 1901 when William McKinley was assassinated. President Roosevelt had a younger brother named Elliot, who also enjoyed all the advantages of that family. He was Theodore’s best man at his 1880 marriage.  Elliot had an awful drinking problem and attempted suicide in 1894 by jumping out a window. He survived the fall but died a few days later. His daughter was ten when he died. Her name was Eleonore Roosevelt, and she would grow up to be the most famous first lady in US history.

In 1978, two years after her husband lost his re-election bid, Betty Ford went to treatment for her addiction to alcohol and opiate painkillers. She got sober and helped reduce the stigma around addiction and raised awareness about the issue as much as anyone else in American history. By all accounts, she was an amazing woman. She was neither vulnerable nor had bad values.

Dr. Carson decided to talk about the heroin epidemic, but focused on border issues rather than treatment.

Dr. Carson: There is a transportation of heroin through our southern borders that is unimaginable. This is not a good thing for us. We need to not give up on this war on drugs.

This is a disastrous and embarrassing answer. I did not expect him to speak about how doctors have some responsibility for the opiate epidemic, but he could have talked about mandating prescription drug monitoring programs in every state, expanding the use of suboxone (and requiring its use be accompanied by drug screens and therapy) or how the federal government can better enforce the 2008 Mental Health and Addiction Parity Act (incidentally, all of these are policies that many doctors and experts in the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) support (full disclosure – I’m a member)).

The media and the public need to do a better job in holding politicians and political candidates to a strong standard of (a) understanding about addiction; (b) belief in the value of recovery and (c) supporting meaningful programs and policies that will save money in the long run, and more importantly, save lives.