Help reverse stigma of addiction

Until fairly recently, a diagnosis of cancer carried with it an undefinable stigma. The patient had some failing that many in their communities didn’t understand and were reluctant to discuss. As a result, recovery was often a lonely process made yet more challenging society’s preconceptions and lack of understanding about the disease, its treatment and potential for successful recovery.

Happily, today, cancer patients and survivors are embraced by informed communities who provide support ranging from individual acts of kindness to marches involving thousands.

The result of this cultural change has been more complete healing for individuals, an increase in research and the speed in which medical advances are being made, and empowerment for communities through education and awareness.

Our understanding about recovery from addiction is now undergoing a similar cultural change. Former beliefs of addiction as a moral failing, or a personal weakness, have evolved into the accurate and growing perceptions that addiction is a treatable chronic brain disease, similar to other chronic diseases such as diabetes or asthma, and that lifelong recovery is possible.

An essential first step in healing is, of course, acknowledgement. And this is where communities come in. For example, the support of employers and faith communities recognizing the signs of addiction and supporting treatment, co-workers understanding the disease and encouraging treatment, the criminal justice system further enhancing a growing drug court network offering treatment as an alternative to incarceration — all of these efforts combine to heal individuals, restore families and strengthen communities.

To provide momentum for this change, New York state’s Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services has produced a new documentary, “Reversing the Stigma,” about addiction and recovery and the stigmas that surround them.

“There has been a long-held belief that addiction only affects certain people, but the recent opioid epidemic has shown that it impacts people of all ages, genders, ethnicities, languages and religions,” said OASAS Commissioner Arlene Gonzalez-Sanchez. “This documentary is key to helping people understand that addiction is a disease and recovery is possible.”

Last year, approximately 232,000 individuals received treatment for a substance use disorder in OASAS-certified treatment programs, with an average daily enrollment of about 98,000.

The underlying message is that addiction is a treatable disease, treatment is available, and sustained recovery is possible.

To reinforce this message in the North Country, St. Joseph’s, now in its 48th year of service to individuals and families in need of addiction care, is partnering with Citizen Advocates to host screenings, free of charge, of “Reversing the Stigma.” The showings will be in Lake Placid June 19 at 7 p.m. at the Lake Placid Center for the Arts, July 10 at 7 p.m. in Tupper Lake at the Wild Center, and Aug. 21 at 7 p.m. at the Cantwell Room, Saranac Lake Free Library.

And in the spirit of helping to change the way addiction is perceived, I thank Cathy Moore, the publisher of the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, for her leadership in recognizing the role the media can play in encouraging community support of those in need of addiction treatment, and in arranging for the Enterprise to serve as media sponsor for these events. Employers such as the Enterprise are the vanguard of this important cultural change.

With all of these thoughts in mind, I am pleased to end with a portion of a letter we recently received from a St. Joseph’s graduate that poignantly illustrates the promises of sustained recovery from addiction,

“So many wonderful things have happened, beyond my wildest dreams. My family is close (sometimes too close!) to me again. I got married, have two grown children, and am a grandfather of one, with another on the way. I have worked in the same job for almost 20 years and love it! From a park bench, I now have a lovely home in the suburbs. Who would have thought?”

Bob Ross is CEO of St. Joseph’s Addiction Treatment and Recovery Centers, based in Saranac Lake.