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Dr. Jennifer Michaels: Amid an opioid epidemic, Berkshire communities are losing so many lives to addiction. It's time to start saving them

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People embrace during a Sept. 2 memorial at The Common in Pittsfield as part of Overdose Awareness Day. "Rising overdose deaths may be attributed, in part, to the newfound ubiquity of fentanyl," writes Brien Center medical director Dr. Jennifer Michaels. "However, the enduring legacy of stigma associated with addiction remains a monumental challenge."

“Why are we spending so much money on Narcan when addicts just keep using drugs?” A man asked me this question last week, but he was far from the first.

Narcan is a medication used to reverse opioid overdoses by blocking select receptors in the brain. It saves lives.

So why does this man and countless others resist Narcan so vehemently? To answer this question, we must comprehend the value of harm-reduction strategies. Harm reduction is a set of practices that lessen the negative consequences of substance misuse and other risky behaviors. Narcan, syringe access programs and other harm-reduction strategies meet people where they are as they navigate the perils of addiction.

Harm reduction has proven immensely successful. While many deride Narcan as an intervention that enables addiction, research has proven otherwise. Communities that have ample Narcan available experience significantly fewer overdose deaths. Surviving a “near miss” often motivates people to consider and engage in treatment. These silent success stories permeate our community. Statistically speaking, the man who assumed that “addicts just keep using drugs” still has someone in his life because of Narcan. He’s just unaware.

Stigma associated with addiction is longstanding. Like hypertension and diabetes, addiction is a chronic disease with a variety of effective treatments. However, addiction remains the pariah. People with substance use disorders not only suffer from their disease but also from public shame and accusations of immorality. For years, stigma has dissuaded people with substance use disorders from seeking treatment. By extension, life-saving treatments have become stigmatized, too.

Ending this stigma is one of the goals of National Recovery Month, observed annually in September. It aims to increase public awareness of mental illness and addiction recovery. This year focuses on the growing epidemic of substance misuse and overdose deaths. By addressing addiction, individuals can focus on other issues previously compromised by their disease. They can resume education, secure employment and cultivate meaningful relationships. Treatment empowers them to break the chains of addiction and reclaim their lives.

Treatment options have diversified to suit the needs of people suffering from addiction. They may now access care in settings that range from residential environments, out-patient programs to regular medical practices. Medication options have expanded to include a daily dose or monthly injection to address cravings and withdrawal symptoms. After my patients begin medication for opioid use disorder, I ask them how they are doing. The near-universal response is: “I feel normal.”

Economic incentives underline the importance of effective treatment. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that untreated addiction costs taxpayers over $600 billion dollars every year through health care, law enforcement, criminal justice, lost wages, and drug-related crimes. This doesn’t include the incalculable cost of lives lost and families destroyed.

Fortunately, we have several robust community programs dedicated to addiction treatment. Pittsfield and North Adams are currently participating in the HEALing Communities Study, a federal grant that researches the expansion of community-based prevention, overdose treatment and medication-based treatment in select communities hit hard by the opioid crisis.

We have the tools to tackle this crisis. So, why did a record number of Berkshire County residents and U.S. citizens die from addiction last year? Rising overdose deaths may be attributed, in part, to the newfound ubiquity of fentanyl. However, the enduring legacy of stigma associated with addiction remains a monumental challenge.

It is long past time that we transition from judgment to understanding, compassion and support. People battling active addiction would feel empowered to engage treatment and transform their lives.

Dr. Jennifer Michaels is medical director of the Brien Center, Berkshire County’s largest provider of behavioral health and addiction services

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