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Substance use disorder stigma: the ‘scarlet letter’

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They say when white folks catch a cold, Black folks get pneumonia. The saying usually applies to economic disparities, but what about when white folks face a harsh stigma over substance use disorder and recovery?

Many advocates say African Americans face an especially tough stigma for a variety of reasons. Addiction can be seen as a sign of weakness or a lack of religious faith. African Americans are supposed to find inner strength to march through life’s difficulties.

“Culturally and historically, these are not things we are taught to talk about,” said Gina Fears, assistant director of recovery and community services at Public Advocates in Community Re-Entry (PACE). “Looking for outside help for any issue is not something that historically we were taught to do.”

September is National Recovery Month, and the Recorder will join PACE to host a virtual town hall, “The Voices of Recovery: Celebrating Connections,” at 10 a.m. Sept. 19. The town hall will be streamed on PACE’s and the Recorder’s Facebook pages.

Shron Rucker, a diversion specialist at PACE, wrote about two definitions of “stigma” he prefers: a mark “burned into a criminal or slave” and a mark “indicative of a history of disease or abnormality.”

The consequences of stigma can be deadly.

Take opioids for example. The crisis of opioid abuse and overdose began primarily with rural whites around 2013, but the introduction of fentanyl, which is 50-100 times more potent than morphine, into drugs such as cocaine looped African Americans into the damage.

A 2018 study in the Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice found 53% of opioid deaths in Indianapolis occur within just 5% of the city — on the near east and near south sides — and researchers said fentanyl-related overdose death is growing especially quickly for Black residents.

Education is an important part of this. A lack of education about substance use can help lead to addiction. The Americans with Disabilities Act and Affordable Care Act (or Obamacare) classify addiction as a disability, but too many still believe addiction is a “mind over matter” issue.

Fears smoked crack cocaine in the 1980s and ‘90s and went to rehab in 1996. Like many, Fears hates thinking about how the crack epidemic was dealt with compared to the opioid epidemic now.

“That bears a stigma in itself,” she said because some mothers and fathers are still in prison for crack. It reinforces to their children that substance use is a crime, Fears said, so why would they want to search for help?

Stigma is a “scarlet letter,” she said, and she hopes the Sept. 19 town hall prompts those in the recovery community to do their part.

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

Celebrate recovery and remove the stigma of addiction

What: “The Voices of Recovery: Celebrating Connections” virtual town hall

When: 10 a.m. Sept. 19

Where: Facebook.com/IndyPace and Facebook.com/IndyRecorder

An exhibit at the Indiana State Museum — “FIX: Heartbreak and Hope Inside Our Opioid Crisis” — features photos of people around Indiana who struggled with addiction and are on the road to recovery. (Photo/Tyler Fenwick)

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