By | December 29, 2016

The mom, lying on the floor of the dollar store unresponsive.

The parents, sitting in the front of the car unresponsive.

The adolescent, found unresponsive in his bedroom.

The children, crying out in pain and anguish.

All of the scenarios have one thing in common: they are the results of the heroin epidemic. They have also been in the spotlight recently as heroin shaming, as featured stories on CNN. 

Drug abuse shaming is not a new tactic in the battle against substance abuse, and it has routinely been part of the opioid epidemic in America. While some claim these stories bring attention and greater resolve to fight the problem, advocates of effective drug treatment refute such claims. Meanwhile, authorities in Ohio have linked “nearly all crime” in one community back to heroin. Clearly, the battle lines are becoming greater targets for the media, and those suffering from addiction are paying the price.

Heroin or drug abuse shaming may be effective, but it could be adding fuel to the proverbial fires of the epidemic. You need to understand why this shaming practice is not working, why police departments are embracing this age-old tactic to call out those with addictions and what it means for the current state of opioids in America.


Shaming Only Builds Guilt and Pain

Shame does not result in physical harm, but it can cause emotional turmoil. Judges and parents around the country have turned to shaming as an alternative to incarceration, much to the criticism of social media. On Nora’s Blog, published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), Nora spoke of how her family’s shame and the social stigmas against substance abuse led her to believe her father’s passing was the result of heart problems.

In reality, Nora’s father lost his life to addiction, but when that tragedy occurred, much of today’s modernized view on addiction had not yet been publicized. Moreover, addiction was seen as a problem that those suffering simply “needed to get over.” It is now widely understood that addiction results in biological changes in the brain’s chemistry, which take away the ability to say, “No,” reports the NIDA.


Why Are Police Using a Tactic That Has Been Repeatedly Shown to Be Ineffective?

The opioid epidemic is at a breaking point. Ohio police, reports CNN, took the photo of the couple that had overdosed in their car as a means of raising awareness. The photo was posted on East Liverpool City Government’s Facebook page.

Following criticism of the shaming photo, a city official responded with remorse and resolve to continue posting similar photos in an attempt to reduce overall drug use. Moreover, the city acknowledged the photo does not help the couple. Officials chose to take this unorthodox path by putting awareness above personal hopes for the victims in the photo. The shaming conversation is also applicable to pregnant women with addictions being incarcerated.

Pregnant women are directly involved in this conversation as their actions translate into the health of the child. According to ABC News, a woman in Jefferson County, Alabama has been incarcerated due to risks posed to the unborn child because she admitted to using heroin while pregnant previously. Using heroin or opioids while pregnant may result in permanent birth problems, including intellectual disabilities, physical disabilities and even termination of pregnancy.

In the Alabama case, the use of buprenorphine, explains the NIDA, may have helped the woman avoid cravings for heroin. However, the judge viewed placement in a treatment facility as likely that the woman would leave the facility and abuse heroin again.


What Does Substance Abuse Shaming Mean for the Future of the Opioid Epidemic?

Authorities are already engaging in a greater show of force in an effort to curb access to opioids. Police arrested more than 30 people in raids in Chicago on September 23, 2016, reports The Chicago Tribune. These raids were targeted to stop the flow of fentanyl and heroin laced with fentanyl in the area.  In addition, the arrests have catalyzed the search for 12 more suspects sought in connection with the drugs, which may help alleviate some of the violence in the city.

In cases where parents are becoming the latest victims of drug overdoses with their children around, the aftermath depends on the specific circumstances in which the discovery was made.

For example, the woman who collapsed next to her young daughter in the dollar store did not have enough drugs or drug paraphernalia on her person to warrant the filing of drug possession charges. However, the Massachusetts Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) has filed endangerment charges against the mother, and the child is current in the custody of DCFS.


Putting It All Together

The country faces an unprecedented epidemic of opioids and their dangers. Regardless of personal beliefs, authorities are taking the action of heroin shaming to draw attention to the need for greater community involvement in preventing heroin abuse. This can help bring about a wide range of positive actions, including encouraging people to seek out treatment and addiction facilities, allowing drug treatment centers to be built in new areas and creating a sense of responsibility in communities of any demographic.

As a program/ clinical director or executive in your organization, you can change how this trend develops. By opening the dialog, you can create awareness of the opioid threat and help build partnerships between community members and the police department.  If it has not yet happened in your city, chances are good that heroin and drug shaming will soon become part of the pushback from authorities against drug abuse. However, building awareness in advance of these tragic overdoses can stop the cycle.

A close partnership between your organization and authorities can also give them something else to reference in front of the media. For example, available drug treatment facilities or outpatient therapy clinics can be used to spread awareness, not images of the possible lifeless bodies of the victims. Your voice and the voice of your organization carries weight even when it does not seem like it. Will you use your voice to raise this needed awareness, or will you wait until authorities have no choice other than shaming the very people in the gravest need?

Jason Vanover

Working in health care since 2005, Jason's body of experience encompasses dozens of care settings, including Senior care, psychiatric facilities, nonprofit health service centers, group homes for those with developmental disabilities and beyond. Jason understands the need to tailor his skills to each setting to encourage the best treatment outcomes and promote an inclusive, healing environment.

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