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Experts say support crucial for those with substance use disorders during pandemic

Experts say communities need more supportive programs to help people dealing with substance use disorders. During the pandemic, overdose deaths are rising.

We spoke to people in recovery and learned more about what makes people hesitant to get or receive help.

The saying goes, “words can never hurt you,” but after getting in trouble for a substance use disorder more than 35 years ago, Deb Lewis knows the pain words can cause. Lewis is a peer recovery coach with David Lawrence Center in Collier County.

“All those years, I was afraid to stand up and say, ‘This is who I am. This is important, and I have something to say,’” Lewis explained. “And that was because of the words that were used to describe me.”

Using words such as addict, alcoholic or drug abuser to describe people with substance use disorders can be lifechanging for them.

“Just that in itself has kept many people from, you know, realizing their potential and being the amazing contribution to society that they can be, just because of a label,” Lewis said.

Gary Mendell is the founder, chairman and CEO of Shatterproof, a nonprofit that believes, “we have the capacity to reduce the devastating impact of addiction on families across America.” He explained the impact words and perception can have on people experiencing substance use disorders.

“You begin to internalize what everyone else thinks about you. You start to think that maybe you’re not worthy of treatment, or maybe you’re not worthy of a nice job,” Mendell said. “It turns into low self-esteem, and it’s destructive, and it kills like my son and others.”

Fighting back against stigma is more important than ever. For people with substance use disorders, the increased stress of the pandemic and the isolation has led to more overdose deaths in a 12-month period than ever seen before.

“The data doesn’t lie,” said Jennifer Smith, the secretary for Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs. “Data shows U.S. overdose deaths across the nation are skyrocketing again.”

The numbers being recorded are higher than the 2017 opioid crisis.

Substance use disorder advocates say words have power, and making a small change can make a big difference.

“If you hear the word abuse, you think punishment,” Lewis said. “When you hear the word disorder, you think treatment. It’s just that simple.”

Another way words can help ease the suffering of the millions of Americans struggling with substance use disorders is by speaking to them directly.

Despite struggling with a substance use disorder, Gary Mendell’s son felt hope making progress with his treatment.

“One morning, I walked into his room and found him working on his treatment plan,” Mendell said. “He looked up at me with that big smile of his and said ‘Dad, I’m getting this. I’m going to beat it.’”

Mendell says, soon, his son felt the weight of stigma.

“He said, ‘Dad, someday, I wish people would realize I’m not a bad person. I’m a good person, and I have a disease,’” Mendell explained.

Before that day could come, the weight became too much to bear.

“My son had just died. He was 25 years old, and he hadn’t used a substance in 13 months,” Mendell said. “Equally tragic, it wasn’t just addiction that took my son’s life. It was the feeling of shame he felt every morning.”

Thousands of Americans struggle with addiction without their usual supports during the pandemic. The CDC reports overdose deaths are accelerating, but there is hope to turn it around.

“I think people are now attentive to mental health and addiction in a different way,” said Dr. Leana Wen, a professor of health policy and management at George Washington University.

It begins with a story.

“When I tell my story, I try to talk about joy,” said Zac Clark, the co-founder of Release Recovery. “I try to talk about the beautiful life I’ve been given as a direct result of going to treatment.”

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, approximately 19.7 million Americans aged 12 or older had a substance use disorder throughout 2017.

“It’s too late for my son, but it’s not too late for countless others,” Mendell said.

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Reporter:Veronica Marshall
Writer:Jack Lowenstein
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