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GUEST COLUMN: Fighting stigma to save lives

By: Dr. Robert Werthwein
June 11, 2018 Updated: June 11, 2018 at 4:15 am
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One in four Americans is personally affected by the opioid crisis, and the U.S. lost 116 people every day in 2016 from opioid-related overdoses. Opioids, which include heroin and prescription drugs like OxyContin, Percocet, and Vicodin, are overwhelming our communities and families.

And yet many struggle in silence due to the shame and fear of judgment associated with addiction.

The Colorado Department of Human Services, Office of Behavioral Health just launched a statewide anti-stigma campaign called Lift The Label. The campaign features Coloradans, living in recovery, and encourages us to remove the labels and stigma we apply to people who are addicted to drugs. Lift The Label reveals that all walks of life do struggle with opioid addiction; these are people who look like you or me, a neighbor or friend.

By removing damaging labels, this campaign will help create a community of understanding that encourages those with opioid addiction to seek effective treatment.

According to a recent study, 44 percent of Americans say opioid addiction indicates a lack of willpower or discipline. A third (32 percent) say it is caused by a character defect or bad parenting.

What most people don't say: It's a brain disorder. And they don't realize legally prescribed pain medications are often the reason people become addicted to opioids.

Regardless of how one became dependent on opioids, opioid addiction changes the chemical structure of the brain. Opioid addiction doesn't discriminate, it can happen to anyone, regardless of race, gender, income level or social class.

It isn't a moral failing; it's a brain disorder that affects people you know in ways they can't control.

When we asked if there was anyone out there brave enough to tell their story of recovery, the response was overwhelming. Coloradans told us how opioid addiction left them feeling hopeless, but through their families, counselors, treatment, and friends, they found health and hope again.

Removing stigma isn't just about compassion for an individual; it is also about having the information to take action. This campaign sends the message that treatment works and recovery is possible. T

reatment for opioid addiction takes time, commitment and, most importantly, support for the brain to recover from the chemical changes caused by repeated opioid abuse.

The most effective form of treatment is medication-assisted treatment, the combination of medication and therapy. It has a significantly higher success rate (60 to 90 percent) than therapy or detox alone (5 to 15 percent), and has helped countless people recover from opioid addiction.

If you feel powerless against the opioid crisis, share stories of empowerment from real Coloradans at LiftTheLabel.org.

To help people struggling with addiction, we must eliminate shame and judgment and replace it with understanding and action.

If you are looking for treatment for yourself or a loved one, call the Colorado Crisis Services hotline at 1-844-493-8255 and get connected to a professional counselor or a person in recovery.

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Robert Werthwein, Ph.D., is the director of the Office of Behavioral Health at the Colorado Department of Human Services holding the position since October. Werthwein directs the operations and administrative oversight of the public behavioral health system, including mental health and substance use community programs, as well as operation of the Colorado Mental Health Institutes at Fort Logan and Pueblo.

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