Over the last few months, maybe even years, the media has drowned us in stories about a “new” heroin epidemic. That epidemic lingered long before the media took note, but in light of a recent dramatic spike in overdose deaths, it’s definitely wort of attention now more than ever.
Unfortunately, many of these articles come with a nasty side-effect: they cast a dark shadow on efforts to reduce overdose deaths, like medication-assisted treatment (MAT) and harm reduction (a model that seeks to improve the health of active drug users, provide overdose reversal medications, and prevent transmission of diseases like HIV and Hep C). They also, almost always, further stigmatize some of our country’s most marginalized residents: drug users and those struggling to recover.
The Centers for Disease Control considers MAT the “gold standard” for keeping drug users off illicit opiates, but these and other facts about the benefits of methadone and suboxone treatment are often left out of local media coverage.
Instead, they rely on politicians and patients who failed to comply with their methadone programs and claim methadone and suboxone patients are just “replacing one addiction for another” or branding methadone “chemical handcuffs” (as if heroin was somehow liberating?).
They often rely on controversial, and stereotypical, images of scrawny, unkempt “junkies” or users “cooking up” on screen to draw viewers in. In so doing, they further stigmatize at-risk people who are trying to get help — and might even trigger abstinent people in recovery with pictures of heroin, syringes, or other paraphernalia that recall their days of active addiction.
I say all that, to say this: With their Sunday August 9th story, the Gainesville Times has raised the bar. They relied on none of those dirty tricks and treated the subjects of the story with dignity. They spoke with medical professionals, clinic administrators, and people in the North Georgia community who are, despite the popular myth that no one ever escapes the grasp of heroin addiction, successfully recovering.
I had the great fortune to be interviewed for the story and can’t praise the staff enough for their professionalism. Josh Silavent has a genuine concern for this issue and for those of us facing the stigma of living in recovery that is impossible to miss.
In our era of the 24-hour news cycle, where most outlets rely on tawdry and salacious stories they’ve scraped out of the gutters, it’s refreshing to find journalists who still pride themselves on doing what the news should — sharing the stories of regular people and affording us all an opportunity to have our voices heard.
Special thanks to my harm reduction family at the Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition, North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, and Georgia Overdose Prevention, and especially to my wife Tori who helped me get on the path to recovery and into the always-exciting world of harm reduction and without whom I probably wouldn’t be here to write this.
Over the next week, I’ll be writing about my experiences with drugs, my long road to recovery, my adventures in harm reduction, and the work that remains to reduce stigma against those with substance use disorders and mental health issues — and what we can all do to keep saving lives.