Stigma is defined in the dictionary as a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality or person. While only mere words on a page, the power of stigma goes much deeper and is more devastating than any text may imply. Many in our own community need help, and yet the fear of being judged or shamed for their disease prevents these individuals from seeking help. Services abound and await the opportunity to assist people who so desperately need that help, and one might imagine that this door, always open, is a sure gateway to that connection. The truth is that the person crossing that bridge to get help is often daunted by shame, guilt and feelings of unworthiness. Ironically, those who need help most may be the most reluctant to seek it. I understand that many of you reading this right now want to help end the stigma, but may not have an idea of how to start. When others who may not have the ability to stand on their own need help, those who do must make the decision to LEAD by listening, educating, advocating and dedicating.
Listening is a first step. This is not as easy as it may present itself to be, as one must first discern what it means to listen and what it means to hear. When we hear, we are consistently and superficially taking in the speaker’s information, comparing it to our own perspectives and experiences. The person who hears is not listening, but merely waiting to speak. Listen deeply when an individual experiencing addiction tells his or her story, and understand that everyone’s tale is different. If you need a rule to assure that you are practicing true listening, remember the acronym WAIT (why am I talking). Each time you are tempted to speak, ask yourself this very question. If you are speaking to end silence that you are uncomfortable with or to make a personal point, stay silent. Of course, it is perfectly fine to ask meaningful questions and exercise humility; this is not an addict, but a human being experiencing the powerful disease of addiction. Be understanding and remember that empathy is the ability to walk a mile in another person’s shoes without owning those shoes, whereas sympathy is pity. Those experiencing addiction do not need pity, but empowerment. Lend your ears and some of your grace to someone who may be struggling.
Educating yourself on substance abuse is always a worthy investment in yourself and our community. Listening is a start, along with attending workshops and events on the topic. Read books, listen to lectures and never be afraid to ask questions. If you are a person in recovery, society needs your voice now more than ever. If you have not done so already, please offer your expertise, as learning from books is nice, but learning from others’ experiences is critical.
Advocacy is critical to changing public views of addiction and ending stigma. It is not enough to say that we as a community stand up for those suffering from addiction. Beliefs never make us better; behavior does. Banding together to change policies and laws more favorable to substance abuse treatment is one way to do this at all levels. Attending community events and donating to various agencies around the region is another means of bringing about change. We need to be the very changes that we want to see here.
"With the disease we have, we can't just put everything on pause."
Dedication is the final aspect, and is so important to all of the others. The commitment to ending stigma and the disease of addiction is an ongoing effort requiring sustained and focused efforts to assure access to treatment. Beyond mere access, this effort requires that all human beings suffering from addiction are met in this process with due respect, dignity and compassionate care.
Are you willing to LEAD? I believe that you are and that our community, which has continually demonstrated the strength and capacity to unite, is ready to do so as well. The presence of stigma is an ever-present gap for those wishing to reach the other side, to move from the darkness of despair to the light of new hope. Looking into that abyss often brings self-doubt, shame and anger. That individual in need of help may step up to that cliff many times, only to turn back into the shadows for fear of being judged. But it does not have to be this way. It cannot be this way any longer. Be the person waiting on that precipice, extending your hand and helping others cross. Though you may not recognize those faces in the darkness, this can be any one of us. It could be you. Make the choice to make the change. End the stigma.
Dr. Jerimy Blowers is an assistant professor, certified addiction specialist and licensed mental health counselor coordinating wellness and intervention services at Cayuga Community College in Auburn. He is also a steering committee member of the HEALing Communities Study, a multi-year, multi-state research study to reduce opioid overdose deaths through the implementation of evidence-based practices. If you are interested in learning more about the study or getting involved, call (315) 253-1522 or email email@example.com.
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