Derek Gentile: Taking on stigma of opioid abuse a worthy cause


PITTSFIELD >> I don't always agree when the government at any level wants to shell out money for programs that target a specific group. But the state's recent decision to create an $850,000 educational program about the dangers of opioid abuse is money well spent.

One of the things I realized fairly early on is how little the average individual understands about the addiction to opioids. In a previous column, I likened opioid addiction to cancer, and got an angry, if uninformed, rebuke from a reader.

The perception by many is that the heroin issue (heroin is an opioid) is largely confined to junkies nodding in an alley somewhere.

But it has changed, radically.

The reason was a well-intentioned one. About 15 years ago, the medical community began moving toward a "zero tolerance" policy for pain. In other words, doctors and hospitals began prescribing some heavy-duty painkillers to people with all sorts of ailments, from back issues, to joint pain to headaches.

Many of those prescription medications were opioids. And they worked. I had two major operations on my foot and leg several years ago, losing both in the process, and I can say assertively that I had more pain giving blood than I did losing my limb.

The issue however, is that too much of a good thing, in this case opioids, can result in addiction. And that is what is overwhelmingly hitting our communities.

Yes, there are still people who try heroin and other opioids at parties or other social settings. But what is terrifying is that otherwise healthy people are becoming addicted to opioids accidentally.

I know a man in his 30s who became a heroin addict after taking medication for a back issue. Initially, he told his wife that all the money he was spending on drugs was due to a gambling addiction. Then, when he finally had to confess, and finally went to treatment, the family told everyone he was an alcoholic. Which was, apparently, an easier explanation.

Anyway, the hope is that an education program will end the stigma. Usually, after I write one of these columns, I get emails and comments from people who decry me as a tree-hugging liberal fascist, who should be disdainful of people with no self-control who abuse drugs.

I wish I could introduce them to all the folks I know who are afraid to talk about addiction issues they or their loved ones have. And worse, the stigma around this subject that prevents people from seeking treatment.

A recovering addict once told me, "If you don't get treatment for this, there are two options: Jail or death. That's it. There are no miracles if you're addicted [to heroin.]"

That's almost certainly true. I hope educating the public will be a positive step.

Contact Derek Gentile at 413-496-06251.


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