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The stigma around opioid abuse is more than individual. Families feel it too

Photo of pills spilling out of a prescription pill bottle
Roel Smart
A bottle of hydrocodone, a popular prescription semi-synthetic opioid that is used to treat moderate to severe pain.

Coping with a loved one's battle with opioids can be tough, and a new study finds communicating about it can come with a different set of challenges centered around stigma. But there are also tools to address those challenges.

Sydney O'Shay, an assistant professor of communication studies at Utah State University and a co-author of the report, said how families experience stigma changes throughout different stages of addiction.

Toward the beginning, families can "internalize stigmatizing thoughts around substance use. So they may feel ashamed and embarrassed and they may not want to talk with others.”

That can mean avoiding “situations where they have to engage with people.”

O’Shay said it also depends on who they're comfortable confiding in.

"Am I talking to a close friend that I trust or am I talking to my coworkers? Are we talking to mom's side of the family who's very judgmental or dad's side of the family who's very supportive?"

When dealing with addiction, the journey may not look the same for every family.

Utah Support Advocates for Recovery Awareness focuses on long-term recovery from addiction to drugs and alcohol for individuals and their families. Jennifer Slack is a family support facilitator for its Community Reinforcement and Family Training, a 12-week program that helps family members learn skills to improve self-care, communication and their relationship with a loved one.

She said the program also addresses the idea of stigma and that substance use disorder doesn't equate to moral failure.

"As we can accept that it's just it's a disease that comes with, just like any other disease, challenges. When we can offer compassion to our loved ones, that helps us open up to our own shame of feeling that we've failed as a loved one for our family member.”

Slack said her own family has dealt with stigma.

"We had been told by mental health professionals that we should send our loved one away.

And we didn't feel that was right for our family because that just creates disconnection.

And so we were told we would fail. We were told he would end up on the streets."

Slack said things eventually got better with the help of her coworkers and the program. She learned that opioid recovery doesn't just happen individually, it's a family effort.

"You know, I kept thinking that it was my son that had the change. And when I realized how much I was contributing by the things that I was doing that I thought were helpful. Encourage him and support him, rather than shaming him and coming from a place of fear," Slack said.

It’s a solidarity O'Shay said she has found in her work, too. Over time, as families navigate the experience of having a loved one involved in substance use, they tend to become advocates for themselves as well as their loved ones.

"It can be really helpful to build confidence, to kind of go out in the world and be true to themselves and not feel ashamed or judged."

Going forward, O'Shay said she is working with social workers and opioid recovery agencies to develop processes to help counsel families not only cope but challenge the stigmas around opioid use among their loved ones.

The recommendations for social workers are in the infancy stage, but the hope is for practitioners to help their clients understand how they're perceiving stigma.

"To move towards a state of invalidating that stigma and challenging that and saying, ‘hey, the stigma exists, but it does not apply to me.’"

Curtis Booker is KUER’s growth, wealth and poverty reporter in Central Utah.
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