Overcoming the Stigma of Addiction
As a young adult at age 18, Jamie was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease accompanied by chronic pain. She was prescribed opioids to help manage her pain, which initially worked well for Jamie. However, after getting pregnant and delivering a son, Jamie’s pain seemed to worsen. The challenges of the pandemic combined with her son’s autism diagnosis became overwhelming. As she struggled with depression, Jamie turned to alcohol combined with opioids to help her cope, risking her job and neglecting the attention her son desperately needed. This cycle of substance use and risky behavior led to cravings, addiction, referral to a psychiatrist, and eventually a medication assisted treatment program to help her break the cycle of addiction.
Thankfully, Jamie is still around to tell her story. However, millions of others end up with multiple addictions and associated mental health disorders, getting caught in a downward spiral. Struggling with a debilitating disease, the stigma of addiction keeps them from getting the care they need.
The opioid crisis continues to have a devastating impact on families and communities in the U.S. Leading authorities in the field of addiction science, such as Nora Volkow, M.D., director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health, believes one of the biggest obstacles to addressing the worsening opioid use disorder (OUD) crisis is the stigma associated with substance addiction. This includes, according to Volkow, “keeping addiction in the shadows and regarding it as something shameful, reflecting lack of character, weakness of will or conscious wrongdoing, rather than a medical issue warranting compassionate medical care.”
“Beyond just impeding the provision or seeking of care, stigma may actually enhance or reinstate drug use, playing a key part in the vicious cycle that drives addicted people to continue using drugs.” – Nora Volkow, M.D., Director, National Institute on Drug Abuse
Painful social and emotional effects such as rejection, isolation, job loss, and shame further drive drug-taking behavior to relieve suffering; this leads to a vicious cycle. Destigmatization of OUDs must be a central component of public health efforts along with large-scale social intervention to change public attitudes toward addiction and those struggling with the disease.
While the physical risks of substance misuse can be obvious, the financial risks are sometimes more difficult to see. For example, employees prescribed just one opioid pill were found to cost four times more in workers’ compensation claims than those who weren’t prescribed any.
There are multiple paths to treatment and recovery. A strong support system can help those who take the necessary steps toward achieving a positive outcome. The benefits are both personal and financial. In fact, improving access to evidence-based treatments for OUD has been associated with savings of $25,00 to $105,000 in lifetime costs per person.
The good news is that employers who proactively address the stigma of addiction and OUDs can make a powerful difference in the lives of their employees and their work environment. Employers can do this by working with line managers and supervisors to establish a workplace culture where employees are more likely to seek the help they need. This includes:
- Raising awareness – Increase employee understanding of the leading causes of OUD and addiction such as working in physically demanding or high-stress jobs.
- Reducing stigma – Employers are in a unique position to to reduce stigma by influencing language norms and using supportive, non-judgmental language that treats people with respect and compassion.
- Building a recovery friendly workplace to support employees – People in recovery often have a high degree of self-awareness, resilience, compassion, dedication, and understanding. These skills and behaviors should be valued for how they positively impact the workplace team, company, and culture.
- Eliminating harmful policies that act as barriers to treatment and recovery – Offering assistance to employees who either have a substance use disorder or are caring for others who do.
In addition to reducing the overall stigma of addiction, employees can directly benefit from having employees in recovery through lower healthcare costs, job stability, and less unscheduled leave.
Realizing that fewer than 10% of those with a substance use disorder seek treatment, companies have begun to offer digital clinic care as an employee benefit, enabling access to confidential addiction treatment, anywhere and at any time.
Addressing the worsening opioid crisis is one of the greatest challenges of our times, with policymakers, employers, and healthcare delivery innovators having critical roles to play. Employers today are in a unique position to not only implement the most innovative, effective, and life-saving solutions, but to empower employees, provide safe, destigmatized work environments, and directly impact societal attitudes toward addiction and recovery.
* Based on real-life stories from Quit Genius Opioid Program Research Interviews
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