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A matter of perception

Addiction is a disease, not a moral failing

Christine Harkinson/The Sun Burlington County’s Night of Tribute and Support Vigil, held annually on International Overdose Awareness Day, included a candle ceremony to honor loved ones and friends who lost their lives to substance abuse.

Stigma-free is what Burlington County aspires to be.

It isn’t alone. The county is among areas in South Jersey where advocates for substance abusers are working to take the shame out of addiction, to treat it like any other illness.

As it should be.

At the county’s annual tribute and support vigil on International Overdose Awareness Day late last month, local officials, advocates, residents and families came together to remember those lost to substance abuse and to support those currently battling addiction, according to The Sun.

“The stigma of substance abuse disorder is dwindling, and we are all educating ourselves and the public to know and understand that there is much we can do to help our friends and family to get on the road to recovery,” county Prosecutor LaChia Bradshaw told the crowd.

But more needs to be done. While substance use disorders are treatable, studies show people who are addicted still face negative attitudes and stereotypes that can impact their health and well-being in a number of ways, notes the National Institute on Drug Abuse.


Part of the reason is that the public lacks information on how substance-abuse disorder works biologically. According to the institute, it is the result of changes in the brain that make drug use difficult or impossible to stop without adequate support. 

Some people with severe substance use disorders may exhibit behavior that alienates them from family, friends and the community and may cause them to avoid help. That’s because they don’t believe they have a problem, but more often, it can be because of mistreatment and negative bias, even in health-care settings.

In 2021, 94% of people 12 or older with a substance use disorder did not receive any treatment, often because they didn’t think they needed it, according to the results of a survey by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. But the same survey also showed that about 10.4% of those individuals avoided treatment for fear of generating negative attitudes. 

An association with personal or moral failure remains. So what can be done to combat that? 

Events like the aforementioned vigil can make people aware of how negative attitudes about drugs fester. Among representatives there were the county’s Hope One Mobile Outreach Unit and about a dozen support groups and providers, including Prevention Plus, Contact of Burlington County and the Center for Family Services, The Sun reported.

The county actually declared itself stigma-free two years ago, in part by supporting local resources available for treatment but also boosting awareness. Camden County had its own vigil in Blackwood on Overdose Awareness Day co-sponsored by the board of commissioners to remember loved ones and spread the message of hope to those still fighting addiction. A key player in that event was the county’s Addiction Awareness Task Force.

Gloucester County’s stigma-free program not only raises awareness of negative perceptions around substance abuse, but also offers an online tool kit of ideas on how the community can do that. They include running a town-hall meeting about being stigma-free, hosting a stigma-free or recovery walk and having informational programs in schools.

Email stigmafree@co.gloucester.nj.us for copies of the tool kit and visit your local township for more ideas. 

Let’s let ideas translate into action to help, not hinder, substance abuse victims.


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