The Fight Against the Opioid Crisis in America is Failing: Here’s Why

As the opioid crisis in America reaches new heights, states struggle to rein it in, but with little success. Here’s a major reason why the opioid crisis motors on.

The opioid crisis definition is apparent in the fact that the opioid crisis in America claims 91 lives every single day due to opioid overdose. Opioid crisis statistics like this drive the opioid crisis definition, but nothing that’s currently being done to stem to crisis seems to be working. This, according to many experts, is largely due to the stigma that surrounds addiction. 

The Stigma of Addiction Runs Deep

Many experts believe that stigma is at the very heart of the worsening opioid crisis in America, and indeed, when you look at the attitudes of Americans about the opioid crisis, it’s easy to see that they may be right.

A 2014 study by Johns Hopkins School of Public Health found that the American public is more likely to believe that addiction is a moral failing rather than a medical condition. Not only that, but 64 percent of Americans say that employers should be allowed to discriminate against people who are addicted, and 43 percent are opposed to giving addicted individuals the same health insurance benefits that the public at large receives. A vocal group of Americans are also opposed to treating overdose victims with the overdose-reversing drug naloxone, believing that these individuals deserve to die because of their choices.

Dr. Beth McGinty, one of the study’s authors, believes that educating the public about the treatability of addiction will help change attitudes and get people who are addicted the help they need. As it stands, 20 percent of the roughly 21 million Americans who struggle with addiction–around three million of them addicted to opioids–avoid seeking treatment because of shame, guilt, or fear of losing friends, family members, or even their job.

The stigma of addiction runs deep, encompassing the long-ingrained attitudes and beliefs we held about addiction before science taught us that addiction is a medical condition, the same way diabetes and heart disease are medical conditions. The science and medical communities have largely accepted addiction as a chronic disease of the brain since the American Medical Association declared that alcoholism was an illness in 1956.

Lifestyle choices can lead to addiction, just as they can lead to obesity, cancer, type-2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and scores of other diseases and conditions. And yet we don’t believe that people with diabetes should be shamed, or jailed, or denied treatment, or left to die untreated because of their choices.

As much as local and state governments and the federal government are trying to do to combat the stigma associated with addiction, popular culture undoes much of it. Depictions of the typical “addict” in movies, TV shows, and other media aren’t pretty, and the use of the word “addict” itself paints individuals struggling with addiction in a negative light, labeling them as just one thing when really, they’re complex individuals struggling with a devastating disease. Pop culture rarely shows the recovery side of addiction, which is fraught with hope and transforms lives every day.

Fighting the Stigma of Addiction

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie recently told the Washington Times that the U.S. didn’t effectively address the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s until Americans affected by it marched through the streets of Washington and other major U.S. cities demanding action from the government.

He recently told Congress that it’s time to start marching again, this time to erase the stigma that surrounds addiction and to demand that the government do more to stem the opioid crisis in America. “We will have seen that we’ve begun to remove the stigma of this disease when the people who are impacted are willing to show their face and march and demand, from their government, a response,” Christie said. “They don’t march today because they are ashamed to march, because they don’t want to be identified.”

A recent study published in the journal Addiction found that a range of interventions were showing promise for reducing the stigma associated with addiction. Effective strategies identified in the study included communicating positive stories of recovery and implementing contact-based training programs targeting medical students, police officers, counselors, and other professionals, which can help change stigma at the structural level.

States like New Jersey, Massachusetts, and others are working hard to end the stigma in their states, which have been hit hard by the opioid crisis in America, according to opioid crisis statistics. Massachusetts’ State Without StigMA campaign is trying to get the word out that addiction is a disease rather than a choice. It warns against using words like “junkie,” “addict,” and “druggie” in reference to people struggling with addiction, because these words hurt. They damage self-image, and they stand in the way of recovery.

There’s much still to be done to end the stigma of addiction, but there are no easy answers. If you’re struggling with an addiction to drugs or alcohol, you can help by seeking treatment and sharing your recovery story far and wide. Treatment works to end addiction and improve lives, and it can work for you, too.

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, get help right away. Make a phone call that will connect you to a professional drug treatment center. The call you make may save your life or the life of someone you love. Call us today at 1.800.429.7690.