Shamokin PA

To address addiction, we must get past ‘stigma’

Of all the battles within the larger war against heroin and opioid addiction, “stigma” remains one of the biggest that addicts face.

Reinforcement of that point, made at Monday night’s forum in Sunbury presented by the Greater Susquehanna Valley United Way and Susquehanna Valley Progressives, is somewhat discouraging, but it’s no surprise.

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In 2017, more than 5,200 Pennsylvanians died as a result of drug abuse and thousands more were affected by addiction. Pennsylvania has the fourth-highest overdose death rate in the United States, the United Way reports. 

The goal of the forum was to assemble a panel of healthcare, law enforcement and drug counseling experts — as well as individuals who have struggled with personal addiction — to provide the latest information on the crisis locally, help individuals understand the signs and symptoms of opioid addiction, connect the community to available resources, share personal stories of recovery and continue a dialogue in the community to identify opportunities for action and policy changes.

We need all of that.

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 Dr. Perry Meadows, chairman of Geisinger Health Plan and the Northumberland County Opioid Coalition, put it succinctly in saying “stigma is why we’re here,” referencing the forum crowd of about 40 people at the Degenstein Library rather than what he said could be a packed house at a high school if it weren’t for “stigma.”

Shamokin Police Patrolman Ray Siko called stigma one of the biggest challenges addicts face, and acknowledged that even cops can apply it subconsciously when called to a scene. (And speaking of police calls, he reported a recent Sunday dayshift — once a welcomed, quiet shift — in which he responded to four overdose calls and administered three doses of naloxone.)

The widespread nature of heroin and opioid addiction (who doesn’t know someone, or at least know a close friend or family member of someone, who has suffered) tells us the problem crosses all barriers — social standing, finances, education, race — all of them.

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The good news, if there is such a thing, about stigma is that we can change it. And if we begin to first apply empathy instead of stigma to those we encounter with addiction, we can do a better job of addressing the larger problem.