One way to reduce the stigma of drug abuse and send a message there are successful pathways to recovery is putting a human face on the illness.
Actually, many human faces.
Every other Monday for a year, one of these success stories will be featured on videos posted on the social media and websites of FOA Families of Addicts, Montgomery County, Public Health – Dayton & Montgomery County, Premier Health and Indigo Life Media in Dayton, which produced the videos.
Lauren White, a content strategist and producer at Indigo Life Media, screened the first video profile — featuring the Rev. William Roberts III — at the Community Overdose Action Team’s monthly briefing Thursday. COAT was established a year ago to study ways to reduce the number of local overdose deaths.
Showing that recovery can happen is one of those ways.
White has yet to document her older brother’s struggle with opioids that began 15 years ago when she was a junior high student in Tipp City, but it prompted her to now help more than a dozen others tell their stories of recovery over addictions.
“Our hope is that by distributing these we can not only break down the stigma but to offer a sense of hope,” she said. “Because we can’t give up and we can’t lose hope.”
In his video, Roberts says, “Because of recovery, I’ve gone on to achieve two master’s degrees. I am now the pastor of a church. You’re talking about a person who was homeless, incarcerated and had nothing.”
Roberts is also now an addiction services supervisor at Public Health - Dayton & Montgomery County.
The local stories were photographed by area film makers who volunteered their skills as part of a broader national effort called the Voices Project, initiated by recovery advocate and activist Ryan Hampton.
Work on crisis takes hold
Last year, 349 people died of accidental overdoses in Montgomery County. And this year will end as the deadliest yet as ever-more-potent fentanyl analogues ratcheted their grip on the region and overdose deaths climbed to 559 by the end of November. But officials say work to bring down the number of deaths is taking hold. Following a high of 81 deaths in May, fewer than half that number have died in each of the last five months, held to 30 in November.
Jeff Cooper, Montgomery County Health Commissioner, said more than 200 people from 100-plus organizations are involved in the COAT’s collective response to the epidemic. Everything from increased Narcan distribution, successful drug interdiction by law enforcement, syringe services, greater access to detox and treatment as well as other steps have helped show a pattern of fewer deaths, he said.
“There’s probably not one any more important than any other, because it takes a comprehensive approach addressing all of those factors to show improvement long-term,” he said “One thing we want to do moving forward in 2018 is to continue to reduce the stigma associated with drug addiction.”
A shift in conversation
Gary Gonnella — clean himself since 1995 — will be featured in the video series in March. He now helps others recover as an outreach coordinator at Public Health – Dayton & Montgomery County. It wasn’t so long ago that people had less understanding of addiction as an illness, he said.
“I can tell you I never got better because somebody called me a name. I never got encouraged because somebody said I was a loser, a junkie or a drunk,” Gonnella said. “It was the people that loved me and gave me a pathway out and helped me to a new way of living. I had to work and do my part, but I needed you all too.”
Normal conversations about addiction around dinner tables can turn the table on stigma, said Helen Jones-Kelley, executive director of the Montgomery County Alcohol, Drug Addiction & Mental Health Services board.
“Once we get people talking about this the same way we get people talking about cancer, diabetes, obesity, school homework, then we know we are making a difference,” she said. “Once we turn this conversation into the common, everyday kind of conversation, we know we’re winning the battle.”
Gonnella said his life started over again in 1995. He went from a high school dropout to earning a master’s degree. Though he continues to be frustrated that many news reports about the opioid crisis begin with images of spoons and needles, he notes a shift in the public conversation about those addicted to drugs.
“We’re no longer talking about people as if they are scourges, or as if they are disposable,” he said. “These are sons and daughters and moms and dads and cousins that given the proper help and the proper treatment, have a chance at not only a good life, but the best life they can possibly imagine.”