On May 7th, elected officials, educators, healthcare and pharmaceutical professionals, and other stakeholders gathered together for the annual Prescription Drug Safety Network Summit. Hosted by EVERFI, the event facilitated an exchange of ideas concerning the country’s opioid epidemic. The Summit agenda featured speakers from a range of industries and geographies.

For individuals battling substance abuse, facing the stigma surrounding addiction is an inevitable part of their reality. Addiction is met with negative perception, disgrace, and discrimination from much of the public, often including family and friends. In turn, people with addiction generally experience shame, isolation, and diminished self-worth because of their identification with that stigmatized group. This issue poses a major barrier to seeking help.

The topic of stigmatization, and the damaging effects it has on communities and individuals, proved to be a recurring theme among event speakers. Senior Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway said at the Summit, “The White House and our partners all across the country are trying to bust through the stigma and the silence that is often attached to dependency and full-blown addiction.” She stressed the importance of creating a culture where people feel comfortable coming forward about their struggles with substance abuse.

Stigma Leads to Self-Medicating Instead of Seeking Help

With drastic increases in anxiety and depression among teenagers, co-occurring disorders should be at the forefront of the prescription drug and opioid addiction conversation.  More than half of drug users (53%) have a co-occurring disorder, meaning they meet both a diagnosis of an addiction and a mental illness. The two are interlaced in many cases, which amplifies feelings of stigmatization and the risk of continued substance abuse or relapse.

Congresswoman Debbie Dingell (D-MI) vocalized her concerns on co-occurring illness, “There is a fear associated with telling others when we’re feeling down, so people are self-medicating as a way to deal with anxiety, depression, joblessness and other challenges.” Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) also called attention to the prevalence of self-medicating to cope with mental health issues and socioeconomic stress. “We must continue to destigmatize substance use disorder and mental illness and make treatment available for all people, regardless of their insurance coverage.  When people have access to the care they need, when they need it, they’re able to lead richer and more productive lives.”

Stigma Leads to Avoidance instead of Discussion

The stigma surrounding mental illness and addiction affect more than just the individuals directly involved. Rep. Dingell spoke about her personal, emotional experience having a father and sister who were addicted to prescription opioids. “I didn’t talk about it for years. It took me being a member of congress to get the courage to talk about it even just a little bit,” said Rep. Dingell.  She said that Rep. Kuster’s encouragement and dedication to making progress around the issue (she chairs the Bipartisan Heroin and Opioid Task Force) inspired her to talk about it publicly. “We tend to think that drug problems are somebody else’s problems. They’re all of our problems,” said Rep. Dingell. Involving a larger community of open-minded individuals could be the start needed to begin a constructive dialogue on substance use disorder.

Denille LePlatt, who oversees 146 rural districts at the CO Department of Education, described how the taboo nature of addiction and drug abuse can compromise the quality of education.  “Because of the stigma that exists, staff may not always feel comfortable teaching this kind of content and discussing it with their students,” said LePlatt. She urged districts nationwide to create stronger professional development programs to ensure that educators are well-trained and feel ready to address the subject.

Stigma → Consequences for Responsible Opioid Users, Too

The Summit did not ignore the millions of prescribed opioid users who take their medication safely and still endure the stress and shame of this stigma. Many suffer from chronic pain and need painkillers in order to have a good quality of life.  However, as Rep. Dingell stated, this population often gets denied their much-needed prescription medication refills by pharmacists and insurance providers. Distinguishing prescription abusers from responsible users and providing appropriate care to each is still underdeveloped territory. People with legitimate pain should be able to get pain medicine and shouldn’t have to feel like criminals. Rep. Dingell posed the question, “How do we get people to recognize the dangers associated with painkillers but also make sure we protect people with legitimate pain?” The solution demands a combination of initiatives and education is certainly one of them.

Concluding her talk, Rep. Kuster said, “We need to educate everyone in our community–our young people, their parents, our healthcare providers–and get past the judgment, past the stigma, and help people lead productive lives.”

To learn more about the work of the Prescription Drug Safety Network click here.