De-stigmatizing addiction in rural Pennsylvania

HARRISBURG, Pa. - Fighting the opioid epidemic in rural parts of Pennsylvania was part of the discussion during a hearing at the State Capitol. The Center for rural Pennsylvania held the hearing as part of it's "State of Addiction" series.

What addiction is is sometimes hard for people to understand.

"You know, it's a choice, a person made a bad choice, I heard that just within the last week," said Sen. Gene Yaw. "Well, they have a choice.. it's different than cancer, they have a choice, but it's just not the situation."

What's defined as a chronic relapsing brain disease has to do with the technicalities of the way your brain is made up. Health experts at Tuesday morning's State of Addiction hearing say people need to treat addiction for what it is, a disease like cancer or diabetes. In doing so, people need to stop using stigmatizing words like addict, drug seeker, clean or dirty.

"Why the word addict is so stigmatizing is because it's a noun," said Dr. William Santoro, Pennsylvania Society of Addiction Medicine. "It is what a person is, not what a person has and that's a big difference."

De-stigmatizing this language and treating addiction as a brain disease is something even some doctors have to overcome. Dr. Santoro recalls a conversation with an endocrinologist who used these stigmatizing words in reference to someone with an opioid use disorder.

"I don't treat crackheads, speed freaks or drug addicts, I treat people with substance use disorder," said Dr. Santoro. "You don't treat fat sugar guzzling pigs, you treat patients with diabetes. The disease the person has should not have define who they are."

Outside of the language used when it comes to dealing with people who have addiction, another problem faced in rural Pennsylvania is the use of Naloxone, also know as Narcan. Many people question why the drug is administered to people who continue to overdose.

"If someone falls down from a heart attack, we don't say, 'Oh well that was Mr. Smith's third heart attack, so he didn't follow his diet so we're not going to revive him,'" said Dr. Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania Physician General. "We revive him, we bring him to the hospital and we do whatever's necessary."

The Center for Rural Pennsylvania plans to hold more of these State of Addiction hearings. They hope, the more addiction is talked about, the more people will understand it is a disease.