At Berkshire Community College, South County health care workers and social workers are studying the science of substance use disorders, as part of an effort to increase resources in the southern Berkshires and to reduce stigma.

Gary Pratt has felt the weight of addiction stigma — even inside the walls of a hospital.

A snide comment from a doctor. A side eye from a phlebotomy technician. A judgmental remark from the front desk.

Pratt, now in long-term recovery, knows how damaging that stigma can hurt people just trying to get back on their feet. Any of these seemingly minor interactions could discourage someone with substance use disorder from seeking help, he says, and slam shut that tiny, crucial window when that person was able to commit to recovery.

That’s why Berkshire Community College and Rural Recovery Resources have teamed up to train South County health care and social service professionals to deal more effectively and empathetically with addiction, approaching each patient as someone suffering from a chronic brain disease.

“It’s 2021, and a lot of people are still stuck in the moral model of treatment,” said Pratt, project manager for Rural Recovery Resources. “‘This is something you did to yourself, you’re not really deserving of treatment.’”

The five-week, 10-hour curriculum at BCC aims to reduce stigma by training everyone from social workers to hospital receptionists in everything from the latest science of addiction to motivational interviewing. The course, “Foundations of Opioid Addiction and Recovery,” is taught by Kari Dupuis and Pam Coley McCann, human services faculty at BCC.

“I feel probably all of us, in some way, shape or form, have some stigma around mental health and recovery,” Dupuis said. “Education is a critical component.”

The training, which began in May, includes lessons on compassion fatigue, the impact of substance use disorder on friends and family, evidence-based treatment, harm reduction and more. Guest speakers have included local experts, and people with experiences of addiction and recovery.

“There’s a lot of harbored bias toward patients in recovery,” said Elena Nuciforo, BCC’s director of workforce development for health care. “If you’re on your first day of recovery and you see someone who rolls their eyes, even nonverbal signals, you might walk away. You might think, ‘People just don’t have any faith in me.’”

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Nuciforo thinks that, sometimes, stigma arises when a health care worker knows someone in their personal life who has struggled with substance use disorder, and she hopes just reframing the facts about the disease can help participants overcome negative stereotypes.

“Let’s say you have a son or nephew who died of overdose,” Nuciforo said. “You think ‘junkies’ drug him into this, you’re really angry ... a lot of negative feelings. But, there’s also a lot of times a lack of understanding about addiction. Not just in the lay population, but among health care providers.”

The course will run five more times, including once again this fall, and Pratt hopes to reach as many health care and social service workers as possible.

These trainings are part of a broader effort by Rural Recovery Resources and the group’s partners to confront the ongoing opioid crisis. Opioid-related overdoses killed 56 people in Berkshire County last year, a record number, and the epidemic has touched the lives of many more.

The Human Resources and Services Administration has awarded a $1 million grant to the South Berkshire Opioid Consortium — made up of Berkshire Community College, The Brien Center, Fairview Hospital and the Railroad Street Youth Project. That money is going to education, prevention and improved screening, among other projects, all intended to build resources and community in the southern Berkshires.

“A lot of substance use disorder screening hasn’t been happening,” Pratt said. “We want it to be as innocuous as domestic violence screening.”

The money also is going toward a bricks-and-mortar peer-support recovery center in Great Barrington, which will serve as a one-stop shop to refer people to resources and a space to host meetings.

Rural Recovery Resources already has rented a space and started weekly “all recovery” meetings, Pratt said. He hopes to open its doors formally in the coming months, after renovations to the building.

South County health care professionals looking for more information about the Foundations of Opioid Addiction and Recovery training sessions can contact Nuciforo at enuciforo@berkshirecc.edu or Gary Pratt at gary@rsyp.org.

Francesca Paris can be reached at fparis@berkshireeagle.com and 510-207-2535.