It’s OK to Seek Treatment for Heroin Addiction

The current opiate epidemic, claiming 28,000 American lives last year, has lead to an unprecedented level of public awareness nationally and locally for the first time since the 1960s.  Public awareness is a positive step in the right direction but only one of many steps to pursue.  My concern is that we continue to miss opportunities to react more quickly to the need that exists today.

The spike in opiate-related deaths has been in the making since 2000 and public health officials became acutely aware beginning in 2013 when deaths tripled in three short years. Regretfully, our current efforts to mobilize an effective national response makes our FEMA efforts to hurricane Katrina seem relatively swift and smooth.

Our fear is not for the people who come to Liberation Programs seeking treatment for heroin addiction, it’s for those who don’t. In the past few weeks, we saw two particularly troubling cases. Despite the addiction that threatened each of their lives, these two individuals were reticent to receive medical intervention because of the stigma associated with drug treatment.

They were afraid of people finding out that they might be receiving medication. They were afraid of the reaction of their family, afraid of the impact on their jobs. They were reluctant to engage in treatment due to burdensome federal regulations that make it difficult for people to receive life saving medication assisted treatment.

Despite these barriers, one did finally come into treatment. Sadly, fear caused us to lose the other one.  He never had a chance to heal from his addiction. He never had a chance to live a new life. He never had a chance to enjoy lifelong recovery.

This loss is amplified by a host of missed opportunities to change the way we look at opiate addiction.  We can talk about stopping the stigma—but what are we really doing to effect any change? Talk is talk—where is the action. Can you imagine a cancer patient refusing chemotherapy or some other life-saving medication because of what people might think? Medications to successfully treat opiate addiction have been around for decades but we continue to debate whether addiction is a disease or a moral failing. Is diabetes a moral failing?  High blood pressure?  Would friends or family advocate that you stop taking prescribed medication for those conditions in mid-treatment.

This is often what happens when someone with a heroin or opiate addiction problem is on medication.  Those closest to them wrongly believe that not only do they have to give up the opiate–they have to give up the medication as well when it could be the one thing keeping them in recovery and saving their life.  If we believe addiction is a disease, we have to start thinking of it as one. We create stigma. We create fear by our attitudes. We are the only ones who can change any of this.  The time for that change is now.

This problem is not benign it is urgent.  Addiction kills people every day and we need to be in an uproar not in a timid dialogue.  Where is the advocacy and the pressure on federal, state and local governments to allocate funding for research into better methods to treat addiction?  Addiction is a deadly disease that kills over 130,000 people a year. Where is the outcry for a greater financial investment in treatment programs that will enable them to attract top notch people in the field of behavioral health?

What strategies have we discussed or developed to recruit the best and brightest to follow a career in addiction treatment? What have we put in place to train doctors, nurses and psychiatrists to help people with addiction problems?  We should be indignant and up in arms to make this problem a priority. Until we do, we continue to miss opportunities to really and truly have an impact.

Consistent and persistent messaging works.  Men, women and children proudly display the pink ribbon that signifies support for breast cancer. During the month of October, even the NFL players and coaches wear the color pink to promote the cause.  There is no longer smoking on airplanes, retail stores or places of business.  You don’t see cigarette ads on TV or pretty much anywhere anymore.  There are even dolphin safe labels on tuna cans. Attitudes and behaviors were changed by people who were outraged.  People fought consistently and persistently to make those changes and to raise awareness.

What behaviors do we need to change?  What policies need to be in place? How can we make this happen?  These are the questions we need to ask.  This is the real conversation we need to be having.

Make no mistake – heroin and other drug addiction is a public health crisis and if we are to find the solution we have to start being proactive in our efforts.  When we are, we save lives.  If you have any thoughts about this you would like to share, please send me an email at I’m happy to keep the conversation going and seek ways we can take action and find our voice.

This article appeared in the March 29, 2016 issue of the “Norwalk Hour”

By Alan Mathis

President and CEO of Liberation Programs