EDITORIAL: Slaying the opioid dragon

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Everyone knows someone: a child, spouse, friend, coworker, or neighbor who has been harmed by the prescription painkiller epidemic.

Addiction shatters lives. It shatters society, the economy, and the social infrastructure.

The science is indisputable: Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory, and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social, and spiritual manifestations.

The dysfunction is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and relief by using prescription painkillers and related behaviors, according to Shatterproof.org.

Substance use disorder is also a socially disapproved medical condition. The public perception of drug users as bad, reckless, irresponsible people means individuals with substance use disorders are less likely to come forward and seek help.

They could lose family, friends, and their job or even go to jail. Instead of talking to loved ones and seeking support, someone with a substance use disorder is more likely to withdraw from family and friends to hide the addiction.

The isolation and loneliness ripple out to the family and friends of the person with a substance use disorder. The shame and stigma families feel may prevent them from seeking support for themselves or help for their loved one.

Stigma also discourages people from seeking treatment. When a person with substance use disorder internalizes the negative stigma of the disease, it damages the person’s chances of recovery.

For the past six years, Gary Mendell, a longtime Easton resident, has devoted his life to ending the pain the disease of addiction causes families. Mendell gave up his successful career in the hotel industry after losing his son, Brian, to substance use disorder to found Shatterproof.

The organization lobbies for change, working with government and healthcare leaders and law enforcement partners. It also supplies resources at Shatterproof.org to help people navigate the imperfect system and find evidence-based treatment and prevention.

No parents want to learn their child has a life-threatening illness. Cancer or diabetes diagnosis evokes fear and worry about what the future will bring. But the love and support of the community help families get through it.

Parents of a child with substance use disorder confront fear and dread compounded. Instead of the love and support of family and friends, they feel ostracized by shame and social disgrace.

The illness of one family member quickly turns into the family disease of addiction. Everyone is affected as family members pretend everything is fine when it isn’t. They suffer in silence as they attempt to deal with a situation no one chooses to have and no one wants to talk about.

Help, support, and resources are difficult to find, costly, and unreliable.  Just like cancer or HIV, addiction is life-threatening but treatable with the right tools and support. It’s important to end the stigma surrounding a substance use disorder diagnosis.

But it requires acknowledging addiction as a chronic, brain-altering condition and responding to people affected with love and support rather than whispers and rebuke. It’s also critical to preserve funding for addiction and mental health treatment if the Affordable Care Act is repealed and replaced, as President Trump has vowed to do.

When people start talking about it, acknowledging the health crisis and seeking solutions, and offering support without fear of backlash, lives will be saved and hope restored. The dragon will be slain.

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