The old adage, “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” may not be exactly true — at least for those who are working to overcome alcohol and substance addiction, mental illness and cultural competency issues.
In other words, hurtful words do matter.
That was the consensus of a group of panelists affiliated with the Pasco County Alliance for Substance Addiction Prevention (Pasco ASAP), a nonprofit organization working to mobilize the community to prevent substance use by implementing evidence-based strategies that produce environmental-level change.
The panelists spoke at a June 1 webinar, titled “Change The Language ASAP.”
The webinar sought to bring awareness to the role stigma plays in addiction, and how everyday words and phrases may have an influence regarding whether someone seeks needed help.
The hourlong discussion was moderated by Pasco Sheriff’s Office Cpt. Toni Roach, who oversees the agency’s Behavioral Health Intervention Team (BHIT) unit.
Stigma experienced everywhere
Cesar Rodriguez understands the problem better than many, as someone who has been in recovery for seven years, after battling a heroin addiction.
He has seen dark days, including an overdose that nearly killed him.
Now, he’s general manager at Sun Coast Roofing and Solar and is proudly married, with two children.
He’s also been a Pasco ASAP volunteer since 2015. He helps with fundraisers, town halls, and other outreach events.
Although he’s in a good place today, it didn’t come without constant struggles due to stigma, he said.
Before ultimately finding his path to treatment and recovery, Rodriguez told those listening in that derogatory terms, such as “junkie” and “alcoholic,” thrown at those with addictions can morph into a self-fulfilling prophecy — creating barriers that can discourage people from seeking help.
“You begin to believe the labels, and you think you’re not worthy, because you feel like you’re not worth the help,” Rodriguez explained. “You start believing what everyone’s called you, you apply the label to yourself, ‘Well, I’m just a junkie, I’m not worth it, this is what a junkie does.’”
Stigma shows up in the real world, too, when individuals in ongoing recovery are looking for work.
With multiple felony convictions and a spotty work history, Rodriguez struggled for months, trying to find a job or even land an interview.
“I got door after door shut in my face,” Rodriguez said. “It was really disheartening.”
The increasing use of online applications also prevented face-to-face meetings with hiring managers, where life circumstances could be illuminated in more detail.
“We live in a time where almost every application is digital, so, if you look at me on a digital application with no opportunity for me to present myself and put no personality or anything to it, I just get shifted out of the pile,” he said.
Finally, he was hired for an entry-level labor position with Sun Coast Roofing.
Shame and bias toward former addicts is pervasive on social media, too.
Rodriguez has witnessed online users condemning and humiliating professionals and local businesses owners who are anonymously seeking help via 12-step recovery programs. People use social media to post old mugshots and share past criminal histories.
Said Rodriguez: “I have friends that are business owners that are also in recovery, and I see it used against them in social media, ‘Hey, did you know the guy that owns this business, here’s his mugshot,’ and people post it on social media.
“To have their mugshots paraded around Facebook, saying, ‘Don’t let this person in your house, he’s a drug addict with a record.’
“Well,” Rodriguez continued, “if you’re not a strong person, that might send you running, that might send you back out again.”
Recovery is hard, he said.
It’s particularly tough when someone has been successful in recovery — built a business or a brand, and rebuilt trust — and someone comes along to tear it down — “just out of petty jealousy or ignorance,” he said.
Stigma even exists within the recovery community, said panelist Toni Reynolds, a certified peer recovery specialist who’s also in long-term recovery.
In particular, there can be judgmental attitudes toward people on medication-assisted treatment used to treat opioid addiction, like Suboxone, Subutex, Sublocade or Vivitrol.
Panelists said these medications are used by many as critical first steps in the recovery process.
“There’s still a lot of tension when people announce they’re on that (medication), and a lot of times they’re not welcomed into traditional 12-step meetings. I think it really hinders their ability to feel like they’re part of a community,” Reynolds said.
She said she personally experienced pressures among coworkers at a former workplace, while she was in a recovery program.
“It was kind of frowned upon that I was in recovery,” Reynolds said.
“Some people that I worked with weren’t supportive, and they almost encouraged me to party with them, and it just wasn’t something that I wanted to do with my life,” she said, noting she was not willing to go backwards.
Stephanie McCann has been in recovery for four years now.
Overcoming addiction and a jail stint, the 32-year-old panelist assists others as a recovery support specialist for BayCare Health System.
McCann was an IV drug user for 12 years, abusing opiates and methamphetamine among other substances, before undergoing residential treatment.
She agreed with the assertion about negative perceptions toward medicated-assisted treatment — including medical marijuana — within recovery communities, such as Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous.
While considerable stigma remains in those rooms, McCann said, she’s also recently observed increased understanding of the methods others are using to get clean.
“I think it’s a work in progress and it’s getting better,” McCann said. “I think people are getting a little bit more open to the fact that not everyone’s path to recovery is the same, and that’s OK, because ultimately, if they stride to recovery, what path they took is not necessarily as important.”
The speaker also noted that people often are reluctant to be open about issues surrounding substance abuse and mental health because of stigma.
As an example, McCann said her mother once displayed embarrassment in a doctor’s office when the daughter revealed to nurses and physicians she was attending Narcotics Anonymous groups.
“It really showed me that like older mindset with mental health and substance abuse, that it just wasn’t something you talked about in front of other people,” said McCann.
McCann, however, refuses to stay silent regarding her own assorted life experiences.
“I’ve totally embraced it,” she said.
She added: “Recovery is so much of who I am now, and the path that I’ve taken through addiction has made me the person that I am now, and I’m just not able to be quiet about it.”
Stigma surrounding substance abuse and mental illness also seeps into medical profession, said Dr. Philip Richmond, who serves as medical director at Country Oaks Animal Hospital in New Port Richey.
Richmond freely offered up his past challenges with alcohol since high school, and having suicide ideations back in 2008 upon entering the field as a “newly minted” veterinarian amid stress and other factors.
The panelist referenced a study that claims around 12% to 15% of physicians will encounter an alcohol or substance use disorder. He also referenced a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study that reveals veterinarians are about 3.5 times more likely to die by suicide than the general population.
Yet, these problems remain “very stigmatized” throughout the medical community, Richmond said, as health professionals feel they must resolve issues themselves, without outside help.
“We (as medical professionals) somehow think that we should be able to outthink things, that we should be able to tough it out,” said Richmond.
“That’s what almost led me to not being here, was thinking, ‘It shouldn’t happen to me, look at all these things I’ve done in my life, I should be able to overcome this by myself,’ and I 100% could not.”
In his case, colleagues intervened. They recognized what was happening and got him into an inpatient treatment facility, which saved his life.
He emphasized the need for compassion and understanding for those battling addiction and mental illness.
He cited a 2015 CDC study illustrating how people with four or more traumatic childhood experiences are seven times more likely to have an alcohol use disorder, seven-to-10 times more likely to have a substance use disorder, and 12 times more likely to take their own life.
“Things that happened to probably all of us on this panel, before we had any say in it, increased our chances exponentially of having a use disorder,” Richmond said.
That, he said, has been one of the most powerful things he has learned.
Published June 23, 2021