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As our country deals with an ongoing opioid addiction problem, there are many people in every community that are in need of drug addiction treatment. Help is available, but in many cases, the stigma associated with addiction is what is keeping individuals and their families from seeking help.

An event hosted last month by Walsh University, North Canton, brought together treatment professionals, social workers, attorneys, and judges to discuss the issue of stigma and how it affects the person’s willingness to enter drug addiction treatment. Shame is a hindrance to seeking help, and unless we can change society’s perceptions about addiction, there will be many who are simply too embarrassed to find help.

“It’s hard to ask for help when everyone thinks you are trash. It drives us further underground, and that’s why we die in public bathrooms and alleys like we’re hunted,” Bryce Foster, co-founder of Fight the Fight Against Addiction, said in an interview.

“People think addicts are bad people from bad families, and they’re not. Addiction can hit anyone,” Sharon Harkless, who lost her son to a drug overdose, told reporters.

At the Walsh University event, a panel of judges talked to an audience of treatment professionals, attorneys, and social workers about what they’ve witnessed in the courtroom and their experiences with directing the mentally ill and addicted to treatment. The panel reminded the audience of the benefits of ordering treatment, rather than simply sending the person to jail.

“It’s OK to say you have an illness, and it’s OK to take action and you will recover if you take the right steps and you can get into management,” said Judge Curt Werren, who runs Canton Municipal Court’s mental health and recovery dockets.

Stigma Causes Shame

As the group at Walsh University heard and discussed, stigma is the enemy to rehabilitation and new life. Stigma keeps people from seeking help when the problem begins. Instead of getting professional treatment and putting their lives back together, stigma causes individuals and families to make excuses for the person’s behavior and hide the problem until it has escalated to a dangerous level. But if more people understood addiction to be the disease that it is, more would be willing to ask for help.

“The stigma the person feels makes them cautious to seek treatment,” said Dr. Kirk Moberg, UnityPoint Health Illinois Institute of Addiction Recovery. “Because of that stigma, addicts are isolated by the very people that can help them the most. Our society does not judge people with breast cancer, and addiction is really no different than that, except the symptoms manifest themselves in behaviors, and some of the behaviors we don’t like. Addiction, like any other chronic illness, is characterized by relapses and remissions. Relapses are not the desired outcome, but it is the reality in any chronic disease.”

“We need a cultural change,” Bryce Foster said. “If we were treating it like a disorder, instead of a moral failing, maybe we could talk about it sooner. Maybe we could get help before we destroy everything we love.”

Families are Learning to Speak Up

Families need to hear the message of hope for those struggling with addiction. Too often, loved ones are slow to act, waiting to see if the addict can stop on their own like they say they can, or hesitating because they don’t want to ruin the family’s reputation.

Sharon Harkless chose to speak up using social media. “I’m stepping up and speaking out wanting to share this story in the hopes it will be shared and someone feeling hopeless, needing help, will see it and find hope again,” Harkless wrote on her Facebook page. “I am the mother of a heroin addict. My son has been battling this addiction for at least 6 years. People hear about the addiction but think “oh that can never happen to our family. We are good parents with good kids.′ Let me tell you, people, IT HAPPENS!!!”

“More people are talking about it and good things are starting to happen,” Harkless said. “The biggest thing, that first step, is trying to convince people that addicts are normal people with a bad disease — they aren’t bad people making a bad choice.”

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, don’t wait any longer. Contact a professional treatment facility as soon as possible, and start working on healing the past and working toward a positive future.