We applaud ABC 20/20 and NBC Philadelphia for their recent segments about heroin addiction. The pieces are both very powerful – taking us on a journey into the darkness of the disease and showing the epidemic’s devastating impact on families. Each program depicts a glimmer of hope – while making it very clear that we have a long way to go to create lasting and meaningful change.
The segments focus on young adults and they did an excellent job of humanizing the addicts and the families who they profiled. It’s important to note that it wasn’t so long ago that television only depicted the sensational aspects of the disease and did not pull back the curtain to reveal the full picture. At Caron, we believe that how addiction is portrayed in the media can make a significant difference in access to care. Families who understand that addiction is a chronic brain disease are more likely to seek treatment for their loved one.
As I watched the stories unfold, I was struck by a few consistent themes that need immediate attention. A few of the young adults were extremely vulnerable in the days leading up to their treatment and continued to use heroin to avoid withdrawal. It’s clear that we need stronger protocols to ensure so that individuals will be safe in the window of time before they come into treatment.
Additionally, we need to improve education about Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT). Although we agree that MAT can be appropriate, we also know medicine alone is not sufficient to treat opioid addiction and that patients and their families need to participate in therapeutic programs to greatly improve the chances for recovery.
Finally, it’s clear from both segments that imprisoning addicts who commit non-violent crimes is punitive and can even exacerbate the impact of the disease. In the 20/20 segment, a young man turns himself in for previous drug related offenses and is incarcerated when he cannot make his $5,000 bail. This ultimately proves tragic because he has been working a legal and steady job and supporting his wife, a recovering heroin addict, and their baby daughter.
As the CEO of one of the oldest and largest not-for-profits in the field, I’m on the front lines of these issues every day and yet watching these stories never gets easier. I feel strongly that Caron must remain committed to extensive prevention efforts in communities and schools, educating physicians about opiate addiction, ongoing recovery support for families and providing millions in financial assistance annually to those in need. These television programs ultimately show that many organizations are stepping in to affect change – but more is needed. Together, we can reverse this crisis but we must continue to do more and do it better.