The opioid epidemic has reached terrifying proportions in the United States. One of the major barriers to combatting this problem is the persistent social stigma sufferers of opioid addiction experience. Mountainside Treatment Center’s John Hamilton talks to us about what needs to happen to correct this.

Describe the scale of the opioid epidemic in this country.

This is a major health crisis. On average, 91 Americans die each day from an opioid overdose. The latest findings from the 2016 National Survey of Drug Use (NSDUH) estimates 11.8 million people ages 12 or older misused opioids in the past year. The majority of those individuals misused pain relievers rather than used heroin — 11.5 million people misused pain relievers and 948,000 were heroin users. Since 2001, there has been a 230 percent increase in heroin users and a 630 percent increase in heroin deaths according to the Center for Disease Control National Statistics System (NCHS).

Who has been most impacted by opioids?  Are there regions of the country that are more prone to addiction?

Young adults 18-25 years of age represent the greatest increase of new heroin users. Older adults and individuals with chronic pain are vulnerable populations for misusing prescription pain relievers.

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the eight counties in the United States with the highest mortality rates in the nation for 2016 were Dowell County, West Virginia; Rio Arriba, New Mexico; Bell County, Kentucky; Hardin, Tennessee; Carbon County, Utah; Las Animas County, California; and Brown County, Ohio.

What drives negative perceptions of the disease and people with substance use disorders?

The National Institute on Drug Abuse has proven that addiction is a chronic brain disease yet there are individuals who still believe it is moral failing and subsequently treat it as such.

Although there are over 23 million Americans living in recovery from a substance use disorder, many of these individuals continue to remain anonymous. As an unintended consequence, the public more often sees individuals who still struggle with active substance use, which results in a selection bias that treatment is not effective and recovery is not possible.

How does stigma create barriers to treatment and recovery — and what is the impact?

Those struggling with active substance use disorders are most likely already dealing with significant shame regarding their disease. The added social disapproval caused by stigma is one more obstacle for individuals to feel safe asking for help and seeking out treatment and recovery.

What can be done to reduce or eliminate stigma?

We need to change our language on how we speak about substance use disorders.

We need to replace the word “stigma” with “discrimination.” When there is unjust and prejudicial treatment to an entire group of people, it is by definition discrimination and nowhere else would this be tolerated in our society.

How can individuals, families and communities support people with substance use disorders?

We need to offer hope and support to individuals with substance use disorders and treat them with dignity and respect.  A “tough love” approach is often too much “tough” and not enough “love” when the person needs it most. We need to promote access to treatment and recovery in every community and challenge the discrimination of “not in my backyard” thinking. We need to partner with the recovery community to continue to put a face on recovery and in the words of Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery (CCAR) “envision a world where the power, hope, and healing of recovery is thoroughly understood and embraced.”