FRAMINGHAM _ The message was clear at this week’s Opioid in our Community forum, the stigma surrounding addiction and mental health must change.
“Imagine you got blamed for having cancer. We say this is a brain disease, yet still say it is your fault,” said Dr. Sharon Reif, senior scientist at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University and Deputy Director of its Institute for Behavioral Health, “Stigma decreases access to care. But if we think of it as a chronic medical disease maybe we will get rid of the stigma.”
The event held at the Christa McAuliffe Branch Library was sponsored by the Framingham chapter of the League of Women Voters as part of its “Informed Framingham” series.
The forum featured four panelists discussing the state of the opioid epidemic, treatment and recovery.
Cathy Miles, founder of Framingham FORCE (Fostering Opioid Recovery Compassion & Education), spoke of her story getting help for her daughter, who struggled for years with opioid use disorder.
Her daughter struggled with anxiety in high school but she was a honor roll student and champion swimmer.
“We thought if we set limits, took her to psychiatrists, therapists, she would be fine,” she said.
While she was first exposed to opioids after having her wisdom teeth removed as a teenager, she did not try them again until she was in college. By her sophomore year, she had developed an opioid use disorder.
Miles said they were ill-prepared for the challenges before them. Their daughter dropped out of school. It was hard for them to get support from family and friends due to the stigma that surrounds substance use disorder.
“While she continued to use, I became obsessed with finding the right program for her, and maybe more importantly, for me,” said Miles.
After several relapses, Miles’ daughter reluctantly entered an outpatient treatment program three years ago.
“She was so used to being treated like a loser, that simply being respected and treated nicely was what turned the corner for her,” Miles said.
Reif said opioid-related overdose deaths are down in Massachusetts, but the crisis is still evident. Around the country nearly 81,000 people used heroin for the first time last year, and 2 million misused prescription opioids for the first time. The decrease in deaths has been attributed to the increasing availability of naloxone, a drug that can reverse overdose symptoms, and awareness in education to call 911 for an overdose.
Reif discussed the developments of effective treatments available to help opioid drug users, including medication. But said due to the stigma, many people with the disorder do not get diagnosed, don’t start treatment or medications, or stay in treatment.
“I think this is as important as anything else we’re doing, is talking about it and making it so everybody else is talking about it,” said Reif.
These attitudes about substance use disorder are changing in local hospitals. Justin Looser, Executive Director for Behavioral Health at MetroWest Medical Center and St. Vincent’s Hospital, said hospitals were initially unprepared for the opioid epidemic, which quickly flooded emergency rooms with patients suffering not only overdoses, but other medical problems caused by substance use.
The average wait time to be placed in treatment, such as detox or rehab, is about 18 hours in Massachusetts. These long wait times are exclusive to psychiatric medicine and addiction issues.
“There is no other disease that would have to wait that long,” said Looser. “It is awful.”
Looser said hospitals are moving toward a continuum of care model. This model focuses not only on getting patients stabilized, but finding them a treatment option and ongoing support through peer recovery programs and coaches.
Bill Parks is one of two recovery coaches employed by Advocates Inc.. Parks works in Framingham and Marlborough helping patients with their recovery. While he works with patients to find residential treatment facilities, securing health care and housing, he believes his most important part of his job is to listen.
“The biggest thing we do is listen. We listen to people when they want to he heard, because a lot of times people who are battling addiction are always told what to do,” he said.
The Framingham League of Women Voters, re-established in 2017, is planning another forum on the opioid epidemic but focused on the legal and court system in the upcoming months.
Photos and report submitted to SOURCE by the League of Women Voter