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How One Nonprofit Is Working to ‘Shatter’ the Stigma Surrounding Addiction

Cancer, heart disease and addiction: Which of these things is not like the other? If you guessed addiction, you’d be right. But not for the reason you may think.

“Old ideas need to be shattered and replaced with the idea that addiction is a disease — and that it is treatable like any other disease,” says Holly Jespersen, senior communications manager of the nonprofit Shatterproof.

Jespersen and her team are fighting to change the narrative around addiction, get families and individuals facing substance-use disorder the help they need, and most importantly, reduce stigma, which people managing other diseases, including cancer and heart disease, do not face. The prevalence of addiction makes that fact all the more crucial, Shatterproof emphasizes. “Quite simply, substance-use disorder directly impacts one in three individuals — be it themselves or a loved one,” Jespersen says.

Cost of Addiction

Acknowledging the facts is a critical step in preventing deaths related to substance-use disorder, which can include prescription medication, illicit drugs and alcohol. According to Shatterproof, overdose has become the No. 1 cause of death in the United States, exceeding the number of people who die in car accidents each year. The cost of addiction is now over $400 billion per year, with a parent losing his or her child to addiction every four minutes, the nonprofit points out. “Addiction affects entire families,” Jespersen says.

Fortunately, caregivers can take steps to help their loved ones get healthy again. But, as the saying goes, they must put their own oxygen masks on first. “In order to best support the person with addiction, it is very important that all affected loved ones seek help for themselves, too — be it through a local community group, a trusted friend or a therapist,” says Jespersen.

Jespersen furthermore urges loved ones of those suffering from addiction to resist the temptation to blame themselves for the illness. “Loved ones must also remember that substance-use disorder is a disease,” she says. “It is not something that they have caused, and it’s not something that they can cure.” Instead, she advises, these individuals can help with their loved one’s healing process by doing “their best to be a support system.

“Feeling guilty is not helpful to the person suffering from addiction,” Jespersen continues. “Rather, having acceptance and love is what the individual needs — they need to know they are being supported.”

Removing common misconceptions about addiction to any substance may help encourage those who are suffering to seek help and begin a path to healing. As of now, only an estimated one in 10 people dealing with substance-use disorder looks for treatment, according to Shatterproof. Everyone can take steps to help reduce stigma — as the public historically did for diseases such as cancer and HIV — by having more open conversations about addiction and its impact, holding awareness events and sharing personal stories.

“Stigma is what perpetuates the lack of empathy and the ‘not-in-my-backyard’ mentality — the idea that some people still see addiction as a moral failing or as a choice,” Jespersen says. “But the fact is, addiction is an illness.”

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