Junkie. Burnout. Crackhead. Stoner. These are words that have commonly been used to describe people who have a substance use disorder. The problem with using labels is that they create stigma and allow us to easily dismiss people who are using drugs. Stigmas are powerful perceptions, they are negative and most importantly in this case, they can prevent people from getting the treatment they need.
Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S. and opioid addiction is driving this epidemic. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, 44 Americans die every day as a result of prescription opioid overdose and the rate of heroin-related overdose deaths has nearly quadrupled since 2002. Pennsylvania has the 8th highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the nation. A critical step in ending this epidemic is to reduce the stigma associated with drug use so that people suffering from a substance use disorder, and their families, will be more willing to seek treatment.
Consider instead your financial adviser, your friend’s 25-year-old son who was a college athlete, the mother of your daughter’s best friend, the 30-year veteran police officer, your elderly neighbor who just had her knee replaced. These are the real faces of people struggling with addiction. These are the people who need our compassion, our kindness and our nonjudgmental support.
What can we do to fight stigma? First, educate yourself and know the facts. Addiction is a disease, just as diabetes and heart conditions are diseases. People who struggle with substance use disorder should be treated with the same dignity, respect and quality of care as any person who struggles with a disease. No one chooses to develop an addiction. Becoming dependent on drugs can happen to anyone.
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Second, language matters. Names like those used above are derogatory and dehumanizing. We need to use proper terminology when talking about this issue. Instead of calling people addicts, we can call them people struggling with addiction, or people who have a substance use disorder. In 2015, the International Society of Addiction Journal Editors issued a statement recommending against the use of stigmatizing terminology, citing research that shows these terms affect the perceptions and behaviors of family, friends, clinicians, scientists and the general public around this issue.
Finally, we can do a better job with prevention across the board. Prevention efforts include prescription drop boxes, prescription drug monitoring programs, educating parents about strategies for preventing drug use and talking to their kids and educating kids and parents about the connection between the use of gateway drugs such as alcohol, nicotine and marijuana, and later opioid addiction.
We need to change the conversation around this topic. As one respondent to a survey given to people who use drugs said, “It’s not a matter of willpower or a lack of a moral compass.” Education can bring better understanding and a change in attitudes currently driven by stigma and stereotypes.
Denise Herr McCann is the division director of community-based services at the Centre County Youth Service Bureau.
If you go
What: Centre County HOPE’s Remembrance Ceremony and Addiction Resource Fair
When: 6-9 p.m. Wednesday
Where: American Philatelic Society, 100 Match Factory Place, Bellefonte