An article in the upcoming volume of the Annual Review of Public Health written by Dennis McCarty, Ph. D., Kelsey Priest, M.P.D, and Dr. Todd Korthuis of the Oregon Health & Science University states that the stigmatization of addiction that still persists throughout the medical and wider American culture is greatly hindering our ability as a society to help aid those suffering from opioid addiction.
The review outlines the history of opioid abuse in the United States back to the early 20th century, with particular emphasis on the explosion of opioid addiction that occurred in the late 1990s, into the early 2000s. The co-authors took a look at how the current climate in the medical profession regarding opioid abuse is one still based mostly on the stigma of addiction, wherein medical professionals, and scientists within the chronic pain field, have not made any real headway or even effort to find non-addictive alternatives for chronic pain.
They also look at medication-assisted treatment for opioid abuse with drugs like methadone and Suboxone, and how these drugs could better be implemented into treatment protocols for opioid abuse, rather than the current industry standard of abstinence-only treatment.
Their latter idea of medication-assisted treatment is still extremely controversial within the substance abuse treatment industry, due to the diverging schools of thought that view medication-assisted treatment either as a better way to help treat opioid abuse or as a way of simply replacing one addiction for another. There is some evidence that shows that medication-assisted treatment is actually more effective than traditional abstinence-only methods for substance abuse, however over 50 years of methadone research (with only a handful of success stories) appears to tell of a different long-term outcome.
Regardless of this, it is important to note that as far as we have come since the 1980s ‘Just Say No” campaigns to end drug addiction; the stigma of addiction still permeates many of our institutions and our cultural zeitgeist.
Prisons and Stigma of Addiction
Our prison systems are in essence kept afloat by the constant influx of addicted individuals who are processed through the system each year. The privatized prison-industrial complex in this country, which boasts the larger prisoner population in the western world, profits billions of dollars every year due to the imprisonment of addicts and alcoholics. With these sorts of profits up for grabs it does not necessarily benefit those in power, and those who work for these systems, to bring an actual end or solution to the growing opioid epidemic in this country.
However, at the same time, the stigma of addiction cannot be entirely blamed, if that is even the correct word, on those in society who do not have an intimate understanding of what addiction is. Addicts themselves are not a particularly sympathetic population of people, and many view them as criminals who are morally defunct, rather than as individuals who are sick. Breaking this sort of thinking has proven itself to be tremendously difficult over the past few decades, but if anything positive can be said to have come out of the opioid epidemic, it is that many people have acquired a knowledge about addiction and its subsequent treatment that would not have had this understanding otherwise.
Due to the fact that the mounting opioid issue in this country has touched so many individuals, we have begun as a society to finally put a face and name to the previously anonymous, and seemingly far-off addicts that exist in every socio-economic, race, religion, and gender group within our country. For many years it was falsely believed and reinforced by the stigma of addiction, that addiction only affected individuals in lower socioeconomic brackets and that suburbia was, for the most part, immune from this devastating illness. But with the opioid problem sweeping through the suburbs since the early 2000s, this stigma of addiction has begun to break and we have as a society begun to realize that the problem of addiction is more widespread than we once thought.
Yet we still have much work to do in order to break the stigma of addiction and to not allow our preconceived notions of addiction to hinder our ability to help those who are currently suffering from substance abuse issues. We as a society need to continue to grow in our understanding of what addiction is, and what it isn’t, and we have to continue to be open-minded to whatever solutions present themselves.
It is not always easy do this, as addiction is inherently an ugly illness to witness, but if we are to begin to tackle the opioid epidemic, we must attempt to do so. And we must put aside our anger or fear in regards to addiction, and our armchair psychology, and begin to treat addicts and alcoholics as human beings who have an illness that needs caring for.