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    Sunday, September 25, 2022

    Save lives: End the opioid stigma

    Connecticut’s mental health and addiction services department announced Monday that it is immediately partnering with a nonprofit organization that specializes in addressing the stigma associated with opioid use disorder.

    With this move, DMHAS is taking the crucial next step in helping the public to understand what science and medicine have concluded: that addiction to opioid drugs, whether prescribed or not, is not a matter of choice that a person can control. It is a medical disorder affecting brain and body.

    The still-common stigma of addiction can deter those with the disorder from seeking help. That can mean the difference between death and staying alive to battle for recovery. If billboards, bus ads, public forums and other forms of messaging can help dispel old stereotypes, that could enable people with addictions and their families to lighten the burdens of shame and fear. The Shatterproof organization will assist the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services with its campaign.

    The United States, Connecticut, and to a most alarming degree, New London County, are in the midst of a spreading crisis of deaths from opioid use, many because of contaminants such as fentanyl. Recent figures show a horrifying 66 percent increase in fatal overdoses in the city of New London, an 18 percent rise in the county, and 11.4 percent in the state. More than 100,000 Americans died of overdoses in the 12 months leading up to April 2021.

    OUD, a category of substance use disorder, affects the whole person. It entangles their family, messes with their relationships, interferes with their employment and eventually leaves little room for hope.

    Humans like to think of themselves as problem solvers who, in a crisis, will rush to help save the day, but what works well in sudden emergencies does not carry over to chronic ones. A common chain of thought regarding substance abuse goes like this:

    “Seems like they started it, so they can stop it.”

    “If they don’t stop, that must be their own fault.”

    “If they won’t help themselves, no one else can help them.”

    That’s stigma. To feel less like quitters who would walk away from a problem, we draw a line between the afflicted and our lucky, lucky selves.

    Understanding that stigma itself can start a chain of isolation, relapse and potentially fatal overdose is key. If further proof is needed that isolation contributes to a downward spiral, public health officials point to drastic rises in both alcohol and drug abuse during the months of enforced isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic. Some of the rises in overdose deaths being reported for 2021-2022 are legacies of that time.

    Stigmatizing others predates opioids by millennia. In other times in history people experiencing leprosy were cast out of the community and HIV/AIDS sufferers were blamed for their disease. Until there was a course of action that could help those involved, stigmatizing allowed others to turn their backs.

    Once the condition could be treated medically, however, attitudes changed. That can happen with the stigma of opioid use disorder as well. A great step in reinforcing the understanding that this is a medical problem would be clinical trials for a vaccine that would block the effects and prevent overdoses. Academic research has been going on for decades, with advances in the past year.

    Medicine, science, human services, emergency responders, volunteers and law enforcement all have their roles to perform in tackling the crisis. The region is fortunate to have the New London County Cares Team, as well as the citizen group Community Speaks Out. People join in these groups because they have moved beyond blaming and on to constructive steps such as uncomplicated access to peer counselors, Narcan and reporting of overdoses.

    They see what others need to understand: stigmatizing people is bad medicine.

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