From the May 2018 issue

Exposing the Stigma of Addiction

Substance use disorders are a disease. So why aren't they treated like one? The Oakland Community Health Network explores the misconceptions and what you can do to help.

The brain is fascinating, isn’t it? It runs on electricity and controls everything about you. But at the end of the day, it’s just an organ. So why is it treated so differently when it gets sick?

Unlike most other illnesses, like heart disease, when a person is diagnosed with a mental illness, he or she is often met with skepticism – especially when the condition is a substance use disorder.

“People really don’t understand substance use disorders,” says Vicki Suder, director of rights and advocacy for the Oakland Community Health Network (OCHN). “People think individuals make this choice and they can stop, but they don’t want to. This is simply not true.”

In reality, those who struggle with addiction aren’t making a “choice” and can’t just “stop.”

In 2017, National Geographic published an article about research that suggests addictive drugs disrupt the channels in our brains that control habit formation, pleasure, learning and emotions – and cause hundreds of changes in the organ’s anatomy, chemistry, and cell signaling.

“You can actually look at the brain and see when substances are introduced in the body, it is effected,” says Malkia Newman, team supervisor of the Community Network Services Anti-Stigma Program, an affiliate of OCHN also in Oakland County.

These disorders aren’t necessarily caused by a decision to use drugs, either. Prescription opioids, the driving force behind our country’s current opioid crisis, given to a patient with underlying hereditary factors, for example, can also put a person on a path to a substance use disorder.

Despite ongoing awareness campaigns that addiction is a complex brain disorder, in addition to struggling with their illness, people are ostracized and even demonized by the community.

Unfortunately, some folks think of a person with a substance use disorder as the dregs of society,” Suder says. “However, as proven by the current opiod epidemic, substance misuse touches all people.” She adds, “Most of us probably know someone with a substance use disorder.”

And, oftentimes, the drug a person uses comes with its own stigma.

“Even though crack and powder cocaine are the same drug, people that use crack are treated with a harder attitude,” Newman explains. “Cocaine is associated with the lifestyles of the rich and famous, while crack is associated with the poor.”

These stereotypes are not restricted to cocaine users. Anyone with a substance use disorder is subject to such labeling, and stigmas can prevent people from seeking the treatment they need.

“People have to feel comfortable to get treatment. If others are going to look at them differently for having this disease, then they aren’t going to get help,” Suder says – and, even if they do get help, it can be harder to enter recovery without support from their loved ones and community.

Since support is so crucial to reaching the light at the end of the addiction tunnel, OCHN has stepped up with programs aimed at ending the stigma.

“Education is key to promote awareness and end the stigma,” Suder says. “OCHN has launched media campaigns on billboards, as well as bus, theatre and raido ads. We also talk to community leaders about this important public health crisis, so they can work with us to help people recover and save lives.”

In addition, OCHN participates in educational fairs and provides support through community educators like Newman. These educators have real-world experience with a mental health condition or substance use disorder and talk with those who are struggling, all to show them that there is life after diagnosis.

“We share our stories, how we overcame our challenges, and how we’re living today. We want to help people gain new and different perspectives about those living with a brain disorder,” explains Newman, who has bipolar disorder. “We’re living proof that people can get into treatment and turn their lives around.”

Since people are dying from addiction daily, educational programming and support like this make all the difference.

“People with substance use disorders are people, and they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect,” Newman says. “One person that believes in them is worth their weight in gold.”

To learn more about the Oakland County Community Health Network, visit occmha.org.

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