Federal agencies confront stigma of drug addiction
New website encourages open talks about disorder
To lose a loved one to an overdose after years of struggling with substance use disorder is difficult enough. And too often, experts say, it is made worse by silence and undeserved shame.
Kerri Rhodes’ son, Taylor, died at age 20 from an accidental fentanyl overdose after a yearslong battle with substance abuse that started after shoulder surgery during high school and ended June 29, 2019, in Raleigh, N.C.
“We know that only one in 10
“We encountered stigma throughout the process. We knowwe can’t arrest this problem away. Yet a lot of these folks end up in the legal system. ... We just don’t have enough options.”
people that need treatment are getting it, and stigma plays a big role in that,” said Rhodes, of Ashland. “No one chooses addiction. No one’s family chooses it, and the stigma that it is somehow a choice or a moral failing continues. What people who struggle with substance use disorder need is compassion, less judgment and [more] help.
“It is what their families need. It is what we needed, and we couldn’t find enough,” she said.
A new website, www. storiesoverstigma.com, is expected to go live this week and is aimed at ending the silence and reducing and overcoming the stigma associated with drug addiction by giving the surviving family and friends of overdose victims a place to tell their stories.
The website was developed by Silent No More, an educational program created by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Virginia also is assisting with the website.
According to officials, Silent No More hopes
“to change the false narrative that substance abuse is a choice. No one wants to be deemed an ‘addict’ — an outdated word and concept that should be erased from our discussions.”
“Substance abuse disorder is a medical condition that has swept our nation in rising and staggering numbers over the past few decades. But unlike other medical conditions, it is a topic broached in hushed tones, behind closed doors and with the cloud of embarrassment.”
“It’s time to erase the stigma, and be Silent No More when it comes to tackling substance abuse,” the website says. “It’s time to encourage life-saving conversations and help build paths toward recovery for our loved ones and communities.”
Virginia’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner reports that fatal drug overdose has been the leading method of unnatural death in Virginia since 2013.
The number of fatal overdoses last year — 1,626 — was the largest annual toll ever recorded in the state. Opioids have been the driving force, but fatal non-opioid illicit drug overdoses also are rising. Fatal cocaine over
Kerri Rhodes, whose son, Taylor, died of an accidental overdose
doses increased 9.4%, and fatal methamphetamine overdoses increased
55.9% from 2018 to 2019.
The medical examiner says preliminary figures from the second quarter of this calendar year — April 1 to June 30 — suggest an enormous, 66.8% increase in fatal overdoses since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The figures, according to the medical examiner’s office, “indicated that 2020 may be the worst year on record by far for fatal overdoses in Virginia.”
G. Zachary Terwilliger, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, noted that the disease of drug addiction is taking lives every day.
“Unfortunately, the stigma that historically accompanies this disease often silences family and friends of the deceased,” he said. “Those who succumb to substance use disorder are our loved ones: our parents, our sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, and friends. They deserve to have their stories told, free from shame and without stigma.”
Kimberly M. Ulmet, the victim/witness specialist and community outreach coordinator with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, wrote in an email that “we want people to be Silent No More.”
“Whether it’s law enforcement talking with the medical community about what’s going on in the field and vice versa; or a student at school whose friend needs help — talk to a teacher or counselor; you are not ratting them out — you care about them that much to get them the help they need; or a family member who is struggling, encourage your family member to get help — don’t be afraid to talk with them about what is going on,” Ulmet wrote.
She added, “Being Silent No More is having the hard conversations and courageously talking about what is happening or what has happened to our loved ones. We want people to know there is hope. There is help. And there is no shame.”
Ulmet said the website also features a message from Dr. Denise Lester, a physician based in Richmond, who talks about the neurobiological effects of drugs on the brain. Part of our effort in reducing the stigma associated with substance use disorder is making people aware that this is a disease of the brain.
was one of the overdose victims last year.
“He was a great kid. A great athlete, honor student,” his mother recalled. Taylor’s drug use began when he was given Percocet following shoulder surgery when he was a freshman at Douglas Freeman High School.
“I believe that was the spark that lit the match in his brain,” she said. “By the 11th grade, we were really in a fight for his life. He said, ‘The first time that my brain felt normal was when I took those opiates.’”
She said her son struggled with the disease and was in and out of treatment. The family moved to Ashland at the end of his junior year in high school, and he completed his senior year at Patrick Henry High School, graduating in 2018.
“He had some really supportive teachers, administrators and went to college at [Old Dominion University]. It didn’t last very long,” she said.
Rhodes said Taylor was taking summer classes at N.C. State University last year. “He ended up in a recovery program in Raleigh, North Carolina, and spent 10 months in recovery. But when he came out, there was nothing else to help protect him, and he ended up overdosing three weeks later,” she said.
Rhodes is a therapist and school counselor, and her husband works for a large health insurance company. “We had a lot of resources at our disposal,” she said.
But, she added, “I was just blown away by the gaps in the system and the stigma that existed around addiction — how we were treated by folks, how he was treated. It was really a tough battle.”
“Doctors minimize the nature of the disease and see it more as a choice.
Other parents wouldn’t speak to us or wouldn’t want their children to come around us,” she said. For her daughter, Taylor’s younger sister, “it was very difficult to have a brother who had an addiction.”
She said, “I think most people see addiction as a choice. I know in the beginning that’s how I thought, and I’m a therapist.”
“We encountered stigma throughout the process. We know we can’t arrest this problem away. Yet a lot of these folks end up in the legal system. ... We just don’t have enough options.”
“My husband and I in the beginning ... we felt ashamed and embarrassed, that we had somehow failed him or made mistakes,” she said.
“I think so many parents that struggle, struggle in silence. We know this affects so many families,” Rhodes said. “These are not bad people. These are beautiful people who have the disease, and they carry a lot of shame.”