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In Focus

Fighting the Stigma of Addiction Through Personal Stories of the Opioid Epidemic

By June 4, 2018June 6th, 2018Health Priorities

“I’ll always be a recovering addict, no matter what, you know what I mean? It’s going to follow me. But every day I feel, I guess I could say, normal.” – Kevin F.

My son was always on the honor role, Eagle Scout, played baseball, wrestled, was not anyone that you would think would go down that path.” – Kay M.

These are just some of the stories I hear as I speak to those who have been affected by the opioid crisis across the Philadelphia region and Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Personal stories of the opioid epidemic help us to understand the ways that addiction and substance use disorder can affect the lives of those with addiction, those in recovery, and their family and friends. But, more importantly, these stories help us to think beyond the word “addiction” and help us to consider the person behind the disease.

Reducing Stigma Through Personal Stories

I have embarked on a project to collect stories from people of all backgrounds and experiences to show how the opioid crisis is affecting our communities. I am working with the Independence Blue Cross Foundation (IBC Foundation) not only to tell the personal stories of the opioid epidemic, but also to use these stories to help dispel some of the myths and bust the stigma associated with opioid addiction. The truth is, opioid addiction can happen to anyone, from any background, at any time. You’d be surprised to see the range of people affected by this disease.

The Problem of Stigma

Stigma is a real threat to those with opioid addiction, and that stigma extends to their families. It can lead to individuals hiding their substance use disorder out of fear of judgment, which delays or prevents them from seeking assistance for their disease. Stigma can follow a person as they move into recovery. Many struggle to reconnect with their community, find careers and well-paying positions, or obtain loans and financial support for furthering their education. Stigma can cause family members to be shamed by others or feel as though another person’s addiction is their fault.

Although the stigma around opioid addiction is a known problem, knowing about it is only part of the battle. We must take action to help those who have been affected by the opioid crisis. As part of their STOP initiative, the IBC Foundation has committed to assisting our community with the opioid crisis. Over the past six months, I have worked with the IBC Foundation on a plan to tackle stigma from all angles.

A Three-Step Approach to Fighting the Stigma Surrounding Opioid Addiction

  1. Highlighting personal stories: The first step is to help our community understand that the opioid crisis affects each of us; that behind the statistics are real people with real stories. By highlighting personal stories, we hope to show that this crisis is not something we can ignore. There are stories of those in recovery, and those struggling with addiction. Stories from family members of those with addiction, and stories from those who have lost loved ones to overdose. It affects people from all walks of life. In addition, we are launching a public media campaign across our region that highlights personal stories of the opioid epidemic, bringing awareness to the realities of opioid addiction and stigma.
  2. Hosting community conversations: Our second step is to open up this conversation more broadly. We will be hosting community conversations across the Philadelphia region to highlight the stories featured on our website. At these meetings, we will talk about how stigma has affected those touched by the opioid crisis. We’ll explore how this crisis affects each of us and our communities. And most importantly, we’ll talk about resources available to individuals and how we can all support one another as we take the necessary steps to address this critical issue in our homes, families, and communities.
  3. Encouraging others to share their stories: Finally, we want you to know that you can take action. We encourage you to share your opioid story to help impact others, give people hope, and show that remaining silent only makes the opioid crisis worse. Help us to dispel the stigma associated with opioid addiction.

Those with addiction are not bad people, they are simply individuals in bad situations, and they need our help. We must take action to relinquish our own judgment, learn about opioid addiction and how it affects others, and reduce the stigma associated with this crisis. As one program participant stated, “It’s going to take a whole community.” We know that no one organization or person is able fix this crisis, but if we work together to provide support and assist those in need, we will see fewer deaths and more individuals in recovery.


Dr. Glenn Sterner

Glenn Sterner received his PhD in Rural Sociology from The Pennsylvania State University where he currently serves as a faculty member. His main research agenda is focused on the application of social network analysis in understanding dark (illicit and illegal) and gray (covert) networks. His dissertation examined and documented the use of social networks in community organizing processes. Dr. Sterner is an expert on the opioid epidemic, and his active work includes the examination of opiate abuse networks, illegal opiate distribution, and stigma associated with opioid addiction. He is also actively engaged in research on the networks of child and human trafficking. Prior to his graduate work at The Pennsylvania State University, Dr. Sterner received an M.A. and B.S. from Michigan State University.