Bates Community Discusses Stigma Surrounding Opioid Crisis

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Initially used to treat headaches, menstrual cramps, and coughs in the late 1800’s, opioids are at the center of an epidemic that directly or indirectly involves all Americans. The national opioid crisis is racialized, stigmatized, and all-encompassing, and the reaction of the Bates community has a multitude of consequences and implications.

Livie Gilbert ’19 and Jon Sheehan ’19 hosted a forum on the subject on Wednesday, March 28. The forum, titled “The Opioid Crisis: How Stigma is Shaping Our Community’s Response,” functioned as a way to educate members of the Bates community and involve them in dialogue surrounding the epidemic. Many attendees expressed interest in learning more about the opioid crisis and its implications, while others identified themselves as personally affected by the crisis.

Sheehan explained that the goal of the forum was not to “come up with hardline policy ideas” or “a solution,” but stressed the importance of an open conversation about the topic. Gilbert and Sheehan expressed the harrowing reality that the opioid crisis is relevant to everyone. We are a part of the crisis, both as Americans and as inhabitants of Lewiston.

Many of the stigmas discussed during the forum focused on how, and who, opioid users are stereotypically perceived to be. Put simply, it is widely believed that drugs are “bad,” and that doing drugs makes one a “bad” and “stupid” person. Attendees of the forum discussed the converse as well, that “good” and “smart” people cannot be addicted to drugs.

Both stigmas have lasting and detrimental consequences concerning the way we react to drug use in our community. When we believe that “smart” people cannot be addicted to drugs, we bypass the opportunity to monitor each other’s harmful drug use. The discussion in the forum revolved around the idea that, just because someone doesn’t seem like the type of person that would misuse drugs, does not mean they will not or, more immediately, are not.

Attendees of the forum also spoke about the assumption of normality when addressing opioid usage. Some health professionals and members of the Bates community immediately assume that students are not misusing opioids. However, the crisis could be better addressed by assuming that everyone either could or could not be. Assuming the latter acknowledges that we are all equally susceptible to drug and substance misuse. Forum attendees expressed that being cognizant of that reality incentivizes members of our community to pay attention to the behaviors of those around us.

Unfortunately, stigma runs rampant in discussions surrounding sobriety and rehabilitation from opioids as well. The forum also discussed debunking the myths that opioid users don’t want get better and that medication-assisted treatment does not correctly address the problem. Beliefs such as these lead our community further and further away from providing the help and resources individuals misusing opioids need to recover. Forum attendees discussed the expansion of Medicare as a policy-based solution to the crisis, as it could potentially offer more resources for a longer amount of time to those dependent on opioid use.

The forum discussion also stressed a change in the language we use to describe drug use and the opioid crisis. Using terms such as “substance use” and “substance misuse,” instead of “substance abuse” eliminates the blame placed on individuals who are dependent on opioids.

Additionally, the forum discussion clarified that substance use disorder is a mental illness and should be treated as such. Detrimentally, most hospitals will not provide safe spaces for those dependent on opioids during recovery. However, individuals can check themselves in to most hospitals by claiming that they are a potential danger to themselves due to mental illnesses. The obvious disconnect present was identified by many during the discussion.

The forum closed with a brief conversation surrounding Johann Hari’s idea that “the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety; it’s connection.” Forum attendees expressed that creating environments and safe spaces in which those dependent on opioids can connect with support networks is one of many preventative solutions. Dialogue surrounding this topic is paramount, because substance abuse can be caused by social isolation. It’s important to watch out for friends and pay attention to the drug use of those around us.

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