In the past 10 years, the opioid epidemic has brought a sharp focus to the issues of rampant addiction that affects millions of people globally. Despite the increased knowledge (and hysteria) surrounding addiction, American society is still deeply reluctant to address the issues of individuals battling substance abuse. Although the view of addicts as individuals with serious moral failings is slowly beginning to shift in response to multiple scientific studies which categorize addiction as a disease rather than a “lifestyle choice”, American society remains very behind on creating organizations that serve this group of people.

Despite the evidence to the contrary, many people in our society do not believe that individuals who suffer from a substance abuse problem deserve help, some are in fact against rescuing people from overdoses. “If we save people with these kinds of problems, this population will never learn”. This statement makes me extremely angry. Firstly, in my experience, it’s very difficult for people to learn anything when they are dead (that’s kind of a permanent condition). Secondly, how heartless do you have to be to say something like this?

Can you honestly imagine if someone you loved was having a heart attack, and when the paramedics arrived, they took one look at them and said, “Well it was their fault they were over-weight, they knew this was a potential consequence of leading such a sedentary lifestyle,” and simply left without even trying to save your loved one? It’s unimaginable to think of any other disease where this kind of logic would be applied. Should a substance abuse problem void an individual of their basic right to health and life? Do we really want to live in a society that ignores the nuances of a disease and possibilities for recovery in favor of black and white thinking? I know I don’t.

In order to combat the stigma associated with drug use, the Praxis Lab I am currently involved with entitled “Drugs and Us” is working to humanize people who struggled with substance abuse (either directly or indirectly) through a social media campaign entitled “Stories of Addiction”. Through platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, SOA will share vignettes and photos of individuals in a style reminiscent of “Humans of New York”. Volunteers, who may choose to remain entirely anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the topic, will meet with one or two members of our class in order to have a conversation regarding the participants’ experience with addiction. Volunteers are asked to share whatever they would like, and are under no obligation to share anything that makes them feel uncomfortable. It is our hope that by sharing the stories of individuals who have experience with addiction, we will be able to humanize a very marginalized group of individuals as well as make an uncomfortable subject more accessible. While it is not possible for our little class to magically fix the opioid epidemic within the space of a single semester, the first step to improving the lives and outcomes of those who suffer from addiction, is to bolster public understanding and empathy. We have every hope that this project will help end the extreme stigma surrounding people who struggle with addiction. While this may seem like a relatively small action, the ripples a reduction in stigma could have in our community are not insignificant.

Did you know in Utah, the state with the seventh highest opioid overdose rate in the country, that the demographic that is most vulnerable is white middle aged women? This is not the group you typically think of when you hear the word “addict”. Due to the stereotypic lens through which society views addiction, this vulnerable group in Utah is less likely to seek out treatment due to the fear of being labeled as a drug addict. The time for burying our heads in the sand is over, addiction is a problem that affects all areas of society, not just a select few, who are “morally bereft”. It’s past time to start thinking of drug users as people who are just as deserving of our help and empathy as those who suffer from other health conditions.

If you have any questions regarding our project or have a story you would like to share, please contact us at [email protected]; we would love to meet with you and hear your story. Help us end the stigma surrounding addiction!

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