Heroin, AIDS, and Stigma

By Sara Veltkamp, Sr. Associate, Minerva Strategies —

Heroin use can bring out the worst in people, and I’m not talking about the users.  Try this experiment: Google “heroin overdose deaths,” locate the first media story, and then scroll down and read the comments to the article.

You’ll discover that the stigma toward heroin use is pervasive. Despite acceptance in the medical and scientific community that heroin and other opioid use disorders are chronic medical conditions, attitudes toward people who use heroin can often be summed up succinctly, “they deserve to suffer and die.”  What is it about heroin that can turn perfectly moral and compassionate people into heartless trolls?

In a post for the New Statesman for World AIDS Day today, Alex Sparrowhawk explores a similar stigma toward people living with AIDS. There are numerous connections between heroin use and HIV/AIDS.  The most obvious being that intravenous drug use is linked to around 10 percent of all new HIV/AIDS cases worldwide.  In addition, like AIDS, stigma prevents people from understanding opioid use disorders, how they are created, and the evidence-based treatment options available for people with these brain diseases.

How can we fight this stigma?  The scientific evidence that shows that heroin use disorder is a brain disease has not led to a breakdown of this stigma.  We’ve known this since the ‘70s, and attitudes haven’t changed. Unfortunately, due to the nationwide heroin epidemic, more and more people are being personally touched by this medical condition.

Deaths from heroin overdose are skyrocketing, and many of these users are young, 18-29 year olds. These tragedies are forcing people to put a face on heroin use and see users as people with a life, family, and friends.  To borrow the words of one young woman who died of heroin overdose in 2012, they are not “throw away people.”

Our client, Evergreen Treatment Services, works with compassion and resolve to provide effective, medication assisted treatment for people with opioid use disorders.  In addition, they work to educate the community about the struggles their patients face daily. Through personal stories of opioid addiction, and treatment, they are working to change people’s attitudes toward their patients. To see stories of ETS patients, Brandon and Carol visit their website at www.EvergreenTreatment.org.