Reduce shame and stigma associated with drug addiction
Drug addiction is a crisis that — despite its enormous reach across all 50 states, all socioeconomic classes and all age groups ―— is not getting the attention needed for a solution. That needs to change.
Last month, a video of an apparent overdose went viral, according to a Sept. 23 CNN article. In it, a two-year-old in pink “Frozen” pajamas implored her unconscious mother to wake up.
Imagine that scene happening every single day, multiple times a day. Imagine it was your loved one on the floor.
America is fighting a disease, and nobody is immune. On average, four people die of an opioid-related overdose per day in Massachusetts alone, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Nationwide, 47,055 lost their lives in 2014 — an all-time high. According to a Dec. 18, 2015 CNN article, that is 1.5 times the number of people who died in car accidents that year. 2014, as much as we’d hope it to be, was not an aberration. The numbers steadily climb year after year while the country keeps searching for an answer.
“What we’ve done in the past is not working,” said State Senator Ken Donnelly in a phone interview. “What we need is to treat these addictions for what they are ☺— an illness — and get these people the help they need.”
Donnelly echoes the sentiment finally growing from the ashes of this epidemic’s destruction. Addiction is a disease: let there be no mistake about that. It is indisputable scientific fact at this point. Most drugs affect the brain’s “reward circuit” — which controls the body’s ability to feel pleasure and motivates people to repeat behaviors needed to thrive―— by flooding it with dopamine. The dopamine overstimulates the reward circuit and leads to the person taking the drug over and over again. Many addictive drugs, especially heroin and prescription opioids, alter the very structure of the brains of those in their clutches, compelling them to do anything to satiate their cravings. Some studies demonstrate an actual increase or decrease in the volume of certain brain structures in addicts. Addiction is incredibly difficult to control.
Some people think addiction cannot be a disease because it is initially caused by personal choice. The first instance of taking the drug may be a choice, but experts in the field agree that once the drugs have impacted the brain, the individual does not truly have a choice anymore. Most individuals need intensive treatment, and even then they struggle. Statistics vary, but the rate of relapse after rehab varies between 40 and 60 percent, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Also worth noting are the factors that increase a person’s likelihood of addiction. Genes alone account for about half of a person’s risk for addiction, and the presence of mental disorders also have a great impact, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Over the course of the last year, I have spoken with many people connected to the addiction epidemic ―— some at coalition meetings, some in formal interviews, some at the State House. These were addicts who have been sober for ten years and addicts who have been sober for ten days; parents who raced home to save their children but came too late; policemen who are sick and tired of arresting the same people over and over again, only to eventually find their bodies. Police, in particular, have been working very hard to fight this crisis. According to a Jan. 18 CNN article, Gloucester Police Chief Leonard Campanello created the Angel Initiative to encourage addicts to seek help, based around a simple phrase: “Your life is more meaningful than your death. Don’t be ashamed of your illness.”
That may be the most important idea of all.
At this point, programs like Campanello’s are no longer rare — perhaps underfunded at times, and less common than they should be, but far from rare. The prevalence of resources is not the only issue. Rather, the more important concern is the stigma of addiction.
In an April 2016 interview, one woman, who has asked to remain anonymous, described her son, who lost his fight with addiction in 2013, in glowing terms. “My son’s name was Patrick. He had a very outgoing personality, he was very funny — from day one,” she told me through laughter. She showed me his beloved guitar, which he taught himself to play in middle school, and a card saying “I love you Daddy” from his young daughter. She told me how crazy about him she was, and is.
Patrick was a drug addict, but his mother, and everyone else in his life, did not see a junkie, druggie or stoner. They saw a caring and talented young man who loved music, loved his girlfriend, loved his daughter and had a bright future ahead of him that was cut far too short by an incredibly challenging disease.
Of nearly 100 people with whom I have spoken since January, everyone — from the bold state senators trying to find new solutions to the doctors working with addiction every day to the addicts desperately trying to win their lives back — agreed on one thing: If America is going to climb out of the hole of the addiction crisis, we need to begin seeing these people for who they are. They are not criminals; they are not junkies. They are people like Patrick. They often believe they can fix everything themselves or that the problem will just go away on its own — if they even recognize that they have a problem. They often struggle to admit to being addicted, because it implies a terrifying loss of control.
In any case, what they really need is help.
Every day we do not act, another four people — in our state alone — will die from a drug overdose. Take action. Educate yourself. Love the person in your life struggling with this disease. Change people’s minds. True progress will come when we decide we are ready to break the cycle.
— Editor’s Note: Joe DeFerrari originally completed the research for this piece as part of his “Advocacy for Policy Change” class.