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Lauren Trifunovich is a clinical mental health counseling student at Northwestern University and a clinical mental health therapy intern. This column was produced by The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.
Courteney Ross, girlfriend to George Floyd, spoke through tears as she sat surrounded by a plexiglass divider in a courtroom on April 1 during former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s murder trial. She spoke of their relationship and shared struggle with opioids.
“Our story, it’s a classic story of how many people get addicted to opioids,” she testified. “We both suffered from chronic pain. Mine was in my neck and his was in his back.”
Ross is right. One common pathway to addiction begins when people are prescribed opioids to alleviate chronic pain.
Hearing Ross testify brought back for me all-too-vivid memories of watching someone I was close to struggle with chronic back pain. The Vicodin he was prescribed in response quickly led to misuse of the drug and, ultimately, to an addiction that tore his family apart. His struggle was scary at points and devastatingly sad at others.
“Addiction, in my opinion, is a lifelong struggle,” Ross continued. “It’s not something that just kind of comes and goes. It’s something I’ll deal with forever.”
She’s right again. Addiction is a lifelong disease filled with triumphs, setbacks and hard work that requires support and care, from both the individual’s support system and community programs set up with government support.
Despite what we know about addiction to opioids and other drugs, the necessary support is often lacking. There seems to be a disconnect between what science and research knows about opioid misuse and addiction, and what the policies are on the state and national level.
The harm from this disconnect is enormous. In 2019, more than 70 percent of the nation’s 70,000 overdose deaths involved opioids, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s nearly 50,000 people. The economic cost of opioid addiction has been estimated at $78.5 billion per year.
Yet stigma and misinformation continue to impede the implementation of policy and support for individuals struggling with opioids. Drug addiction continues to be regarded as a crime, not a public health issue. People who suffer from addiction are still subjected to harsh judgment and derogatory language. They are called “junkies,” “tweakers” and “addicts.”
All of this feeds the public’s perception that people with addictions don’t deserve sympathy or support. This in turn influences policy, as well as the quality of treatment within clinical settings.
This vilification is being exemplified by the defense team in the Chauvin trial, as it attempts to blame George Floyd’s struggle with opioids for causing his death. This is the same kind of victim blaming that makes it difficult for people struggling with addiction to get the help they need.
All hope is not lost, however. Strides have been made within larger agencies like the CDC to address the lack of resources and the stigmatization faced by people struggling with opioid abuse. Making progress on this issue means we must stop perpetuating stigma, fear and vilification, and start spreading empathy and evidence-based treatment approaches.