The danger of dehumanizing the heroin epidemic

By viewing heroin addicts through the negative lens painted of them, we are destroying our ability to face the problem and create solutions.


WASHINGTON,  January 24, 2017 – The heroin epidemic in the United States has become a public health crisis – one of the biggest facing America today. Deaths from opioids have jumped dramatically and the numbers are staggering. The fact that we are in the wake of an epidemic is not a question, it’s fact. The question is, however, how it’s handled.

In the wave of a scary substance abuse issue, addicts are being viewed by their numbers and not their status as fellow human beings. By viewing heroin addicts through the negative lens painted of them, we are destroying our ability to face the problem and create solutions. When you don’t view addicts as people, you stop considering humane ways to help them, and that’s the danger caused by the dehumanization of this problem.

Understanding the Problem

The cause for the spike in opioid use is not known for sure, but it’s suggested that the problem has a link with prescription opioids being over-prescribed and then cut back. OxyContin and Percocet were popular legal opioids prescribed for a variety of different problems including chronic pain. Once people began abusing this highly addictive substance and opioid deaths began to rise, officials cracked down on prescription painkillers. For those that could no longer obtain the legal drug they’ve become dependent on, they turned to cheaper and more potent opioids. With more demand came more availability which created more people with an opioid dependence problem.

Now this problem has surpassed anyone’s expectation and American’s are dying at extremely high rates. Although substance abuse is most common below the federal poverty line, this problem has transcended income levels, gender, and age. Now heroin use has reached its highest level in 20 years and deaths related to heroin use have increased five-fold since 2000. More people are dying from overdoses than car accidents and gun violence – it’s truly an epidemic facing America.

The Stigma of Addiction

This problem needs to be taken seriously as it’s taking thousands of lives per year. However, the public has an extremely negative view of addiction and has minimal sympathy for those gripped by the heroin epidemic. The stigma of addiction has been a trend for years, stemming back from scare tactics used to keep young people away from drugs. Recently viral videos are surfacing showcasing the problem and those affected by them, including photos from police agencies as well as civilians. The question remains if this tactic is doing more harm by further stigmatizing this problem for addicts, or is it helping to gain awareness? Unfortunately, awareness is only helpful if it’s met with ideas to promote change – and a large portion of that awareness was instead met with negativity and callousness.

Now that we understand the brain more, we are better able to navigate it’s intricacies through a more comprehensive understanding of neuroanatomy and function. We understand a lot more than we used to about why addiction happens and how to help those struggling with it. It’s still not an exact science, but it’s come a long way. Addiction has a lot to do with genetics, the pleasure centers in the brain, and the community that we live in. The danger in stigmatizing addiction is that it’s causing people not to care about those affected by it even though it’s caused by your genetics, your surroundings, or chronic pain that someone prescribed you an opiate for.

Changing Perspectives

Fortunately, understanding in America seems to come in waves. There was a stigma surrounding AIDS before so many came together to help prevent such a tragic disease, for instance. In 2016, heroin use is affecting infants, children, teens, sister, nephews, dads, moms, and grandparents. It’s killing people at an alarming rate and more people are opening up about their struggles with heroin use in order to humanize the problem. Heroin use is not a criminal drug addict problem, it’s a young and intelligent college basketball star problem, it’s an athletic and trusted veteran problem, it’s a hopeful and determined young mother problem – it is an everyone problem.

The perspective of drug use and opioid dependency needs to be rooted in understanding. Understanding why addiction happens, the signs of heroin addiction in a loved one, how to get help, how to get involved, and how big of a problem this has become are all vital aspects to changing the perspective of heroin addiction in the U.S.

Lowering the Numbers

As a country we’ve tried a lot of things in order to reduce the substance abuse issue that we have. Scare tactics and harsher punishments for drug offenses have proved to be a limited resource in helping the problem. In order to help the addicted, we are now trying to understand the addict in order to find the key to help these numbers go down. Understanding why a heroin addict continues to use such a toxic and deadly substance is to understand the pain associated with withdrawal. It’s understanding the way that addiction works in the brain. Federal and state officials are, instead, pushed for more treatment funding.

States are using a variety of tactics to help fight this epidemic – some extremely controversial. Safe-injection sites are used so that addicts can have supervised injections of small amounts of heroin in a safe environment. The argument here is that it’s sending the wrong message. Various other options are similar to methadone clinics that offer similar substances in place of heroin to addicts. The controversy here is that we are replacing one addiction with another. Some states are looking to push non-violent drug offenders towards treatment rather than jail, the issue here is some worrying about resources being stretched too thin as it is. However, at least new and innovative ideas are being utilized to help this problem.

The danger of dehumanizing the heroin epidemic is that it carries with it the possibility that more and more Americans will lose their lives without anyone caring to help combat the problem. If we allow those numbers to be faceless, to carry an image of disgust, or the mindset that we will be better if they all died anyway, then they will die.

Unfortunately, those deaths are not just disgusting, faceless numbers.  Those deaths are our families.

By understanding the problem, working against the stigma of addiction, changing our perspective, and coming up with ways to help those numbers go down, we are saving those lives. Understanding this epidemic is understanding the balance between holding an addict accountable for their actions while still treating them like human beings.

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