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Debunking SUD Myths And Combating Stigma

Substance addiction and overdose hit close to home for so many of us. The majority of people in our community know someone personally who has suffered from a substance use disorder. In light of this tragedy, it is extremely important to understand why this is happening at such alarming rates so we can find ways to stop it.

Most people living in Fulton County and surrounding areas view substance addiction and overdose, specifically those involving opioids, as a major public health concern. But what do we do about it? How do we best support those who are suffering from addiction in their recovery journey? Most importantly, how do we prevent this from happening in the first place?

To answer these questions, we need to begin by asking ourselves some tough questions. We need to understand how our thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors, as a community, might be either hindering or supporting these efforts.

Despite being a highly treatable condition, more than 90 percent of those with opioid addiction go untreated each year, nationwide. And in our community, this number might be even higher. This unfortunate phenomenon could be driven by fear of stigma, including loss of respect in the community. Many of those who do not seek help have reported “stigma” as their primary barrier for not engaging in treatment.

This past fall, Fulton County Family Partnership (FCFP), along with Project S.A.A.F.E. (Sustain An Abuse Free Environment), conducted a local community-wide survey to examine how the population views substance use disorders.

“The data collected showed the community has a great deal of concern for those dealing with the disease of addiction as well as a lack of knowledge in the options available for individuals, their families and friends in assisting someone working through the addiction, treatment, and recovery stages,” stated Elwood Strait, Human Resources and Services Administrations (HRSA) project director.

According to the survey, the majority of Fulton County residents agree substance use disorders (SUDs) are highly preventable, which is backed by science. Though, unfortunately, there is still a great deal of misunderstanding and misinformation surrounding opioid addiction, including the causes, effective forms of treatment, and perpetuating factors of the disease.

Confronting these stereotypes and misconceptions can be difficult, especially when the science of SUD and the data analyzing the most effective treatments may contradict preconceived personal beliefs. But it is necessary if we truly want to help our loved ones and to see our community thrive The following statements are examples of common myths and stigmatizing views about substance addiction that appear to be especially pervasive:

Myth #1: “Abstinence-based therapy is the only truly successful form of treatment”

This is a tough one. We have been conditioned for decades to believe the 12-step program alone, promoting abstinence-only or the “cold-turkey” approach is the most, if not the only, successful form of treatment for substance addiction. But science has demonstrated repeatedly that this is just not true for most. Person-centered treatment in conjunction with medication has been conclusively shown to be more effective than approaches without medication. In future articles, we will delve more into this topic.

Myth #2: “A person addicted to a prescription opioid can stop using it if they really want to stop.”

While initial drug use sometimes includes an element of personal choice, many people are not aware that substance use actually alters brain chemistry, changing an individual’s personality and rewiring the brain’s reward centers. It is also important to acknowledge external factors outside of an individual’s direct control that contributed to their addiction; for example, an injury leading to medically-recommended prescription opioid use that progressed into an opioid addiction. In addition, pharmaceutical companies, marketing firms, the media, health organizations, and health care providers all can contribute to rising opioid misuse and addiction. Attributing opioid use disorder exclusively to individuals’ poor choices enables a “blame-game” mentality and devaluation of the individual, often suggesting a general lack of willpower and restraint. Not only are these beliefs held by members of the general public, but also credible figures in the community, thus contributing to the salience of this perspective. Unfortunately, these stereotypes stand in the way of evidence-based treatment and recovery, i.e. solutions.

Myth #3: “A person with a substance use disorder is more likely to have an addictive personality.”

An overwhelming majority of the population believes in a so-called “addictive personality,” but this is not at all supported by science and an oversimplified view of addiction. This stereotype is also damaging to one’s recovery because it implies that addressing the mental health component alone is sufficient in fixing the problem. Rather, a comprehensive treatment plan, including a tailored combination of behavioral therapies, social support, and medication as part of a wholeperson approach has been shown to be most effective.

Myth #4: “An individual with substance use disorder should not have the same right to a job as anyone else.”

This is probably the most damaging stereotype faced by individuals in recovery from substance addiction. Although recovery is a long road, in a supportive environment, individuals in treatment are capable of participating in meaningful life activities, such as parenting, working, and engaging in community organizations, just like anyone else. Job skills training and vocational counseling have been found to reduce barriers related to self-stigma and contribute positively to treatment and recovery outcomes.

By Marybeth Shenberger, Public Health Analyst
First printed in the
Fulton County News January 7, 2021