Open conversation about addiction is important, but it can perpetuate myths, discouragement, and stigma
by Lyn Moore O’Connell, MA, LMFT
West Virginia and the Appalachian region in general have extended histories of bad press and negative stereotypes. Although this has long been true, the drug epidemic has fueled both negative impressions from outsiders and growing self-stigma from within, due to the damaging effects of addiction on individuals, families, and communities. As residents continue to leave the region, those left behind are faced with two options: fight or flight. I can, with absolute certainty, report that one community, Huntington, WV, has chosen to fight.
Wildfire in Huntington
Many in our community have rallied around this topic for over a decade by developing prevention teams, school based initiatives, and educational campaigns. However, as Malcolm Gladwell has written, eventually there is a magical moment when a spark of an idea crosses the threshold and becomes a wildfire.
The wildfire has hit Huntington. Individuals who didn’t see themselves as affected now do. Some who were opposed to any and all harm reduction programs are now vocal advocates. Companies are supporting innovative thinking and sponsoring creative substance use interventions. Educators now believe programs like Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT) to be necessary components of their curriculum, no matter the department. And our troubling statistics are being put to work in grant applications or program justifications to increase treatment, education, funding, and employment.
Confronting the Pros and Cons of Putting it Out in the Open
It seems clear that the alarming rates of addiction in Huntington and nationally are not to be minimized or dismissed; that only by confronting them head on will we succeed and quite possibly come out stronger than ever to face the next crisis. Rather than denying the overdose statistics, Huntington officials have decided to count every last victim and survivor, track drug use, map overdoses, and stretch beyond the usual approaches to drug policy.
This isn’t necessarily a popular strategy, in part because it puts very personal struggles out there for the entire world to see and critique (see reports from the BBC and VICE). It may also have led to discouragement among some insiders who assume, incorrectly, that there is a quick fix for this problem, that it’s an epidemic only affecting our community due to some underlying moral failure, or that no one is doing anything to help.
It is important to employ clear communication strategies to reassure those living with this epidemic daily that there is hope on the horizon and people are taking action.
Now is not the time to force people back into the shadows just because we don’t like what we see under the spotlight. Unfortunately, during a time of crisis, many rely on gut reactions and fear, which promote the spread of common myths (such as the idea that addiction is caused by a moral failure or someone can just quickly stop using drugs) and perpetuate stigma against the individuals and communities who are affected. Furthermore, effective interventions take time and there is growing displeasure about the lack of visible movement to reverse the crisis.
This begs the question: how can communities better get the word out about the growth and improvement of effective strategies for combating the opioid epidemic?
Spreading the Word About Community Initiatives: What Works and What Doesn’t
It is important to employ clear communication strategies to reassure those living with this epidemic daily that there is hope on the horizon and people are taking action. Not only do we want people to be aware of negative effects of addiction, we also want them to feel connected to community-level responses. Here are some fairly traditional ways of spreading the word:
Local media: Unfortunately, the local news media is often influenced most by what will obtain clicks or interaction for advertising purposes. Also, the news often only reports on completed projects or outcomes, which makes it hard to pitch stories about future grants or current projects. The news media also may be unaware of the negative or stigmatizing language or images they are using to promote a story, which unfortunately perpetuates the problem.
Social media: This has some of the same difficulties as the news media and it may lead to promotion of untruths, stigmatizing beliefs, and hateful comments due to its anonymity.
Word of mouth: Again, this has pitfalls because it’s a highly unreliable game of telephone where important messages may get muddied. He-said-she-said stories, which often amount to gossip, tend to dehumanize the human being at the center of the story who is struggling with a disease. These conversations can silence people in active addiction and their family members, who are often unable to represent their personal struggles effectively to the larger community due to public stigma.
As we can see, although some of these approaches may work, they are not always reliable. Here are additional ideas:
Community trainings about language: One suggestion that has been introduced in our community is the use of trainings about appropriate language for community members, professionals, and the media in hopes of using person-centered language to reduce stigma in our conversations or stories at all levels.
Editorials, blog posts, or press conferences: These methods help knowledgeable people control the message and highlight areas of ongoing focus and work. If compassionate and educated professionals help lead the discussion along with the recovery community, rather than allowing messages of fear, hopelessness, and anger to engulf the conversation, then the larger community can be better guided toward facts, compassionate responses, and future opportunities for prevention and intervention.
Telling success stories: A third opportunity includes finding innovative ways of profiling the many living in long-term recovery rather than maintaining the focus on negative outcomes. Individuals in addiction, their families, and the community need to have hope restored and the courageous stories of those in recovery are uniquely able to personalize and inspire to remind us all that recovery is very possible.
Needless to say, all positive communication around addiction and recovery should be highlighted on social media, including Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. (It is, after all, the 21st century).
Every discussion around addiction provides the opportunity to change the narrative and improve the lives of those in addiction and in recovery, alongside their community. We can each task ourselves with seeking out accurate information and hope around this personal topic.
Clear Communication Starts with Confronting the Truth
Promoting the facts of addiction and humanizing those struggling are key components of building community support to adequately and effectively address this epidemic.
Each community will need to identify the people that can help fan the flames of change, but first they may have to come to terms with the saddening truth: that addiction has long been tucked behind the shadows in their community. It is time for all communities to fight, no matter what negative feedback they encounter, because so many lives depend on it.
Lyn Moore O’Connell, MA, LMFT is a doctoral candidate in Marriage & Family Therapy at Virginia Tech University and a licensed marriage and family therapist in Ohio. She works full time as the clinical coordinator for the SBIRT team at Marshall University in Huntington, WV, which collaborates to reduce stigma, improve education and training around addiction, and provide resources to the community.