Brooke Feldman, speaking about harm reduction at the Pennsylvania State Capitol Building for Recovery Advocacy Day 2018.
This month marks the 30th year of National Recovery Month, a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA)-sponsored celebration of the millions of Americans living in long-term recovery. All across the country, people in recovery — along with their families, allies, supporters, and service providers — will gather for local celebrations geared toward demonstrating that “people can and do recover.”
Philadelphia’s Recovery Walks! Event
Philadelphia has proudly boasted one of the largest Recovery Month celebrations in the world, with tens of thousands of people gathering at Penn’s Landing each September for the Recovery Walks! event. The overarching goal of National Recovery Month (much like the Independence Blue Cross Foundation’s Someone You Know public health awareness campaign) has been to reduce the stigma that clouds public understanding and perception of substance use disorders, potentially discouraging people from seeking help.
Adding a Face and Voice to Recovery
Adding a face and voice to recovery from a substance use disorder can have a powerful impact on reducing stigma and encouraging help-seeking. When people share their personal recovery stories, it inspires hope and shows individuals, families, communities, and the world-at-large that recovery is possible. Furthermore, the sharing of a diverse range of recovery stories can be effective in dismantling stereotypical images of what “somebody in recovery” looks like or “how somebody should recover.” We see there is no one “right way” to recover but an array of strategies, treatment interventions, and recovery supports to self-select from.
Lastly, as the Someone You Know campaign title suggests, putting a face and voice to recovery can help people realize the “type” of person who is in recovery from a substance use disorder is quite simply, someone you know: your coworker, old classmate, or neighbor. Demystifying and normalizing recovery ultimately aids in breaking down the harmful stigma surrounding recovery.
What Are the Messages We Send?
When I publicly share how long it has been since I’ve used alcohol or other drugs, people clap, and I get comments of “wow, you are amazing,” or “you should be so proud of yourself.” I am often met with praise for my moral character as if it were the impetus for the remission of my health condition. My recovery is a positive health outcome largely achieved as a result of having had access to the resources, support, and services I needed, when I needed them, and for how long I needed them. My recovery, which happens to include abstinence, doesn’t make me worthy of compassion — my humanity does.
When we message recovery as the point of redemption and restoration of self-worth, we are inadvertently stigmatizing people who are using drugs or not in recovery. If the character of people in recovery is positioned as high, then the character of people not yet in recovery is positioned as low.
It is, without a doubt, important to celebrate recovery and to share hope that recovery is possible. We must also remember to message that substance use disorders are complex health conditions, not moral failings. It is my hope that those of us who are in recovery, our families, supporters, and service providers continue to dismantle stigma in every way possible during this year’s National Recovery Month.