Telling stories helps empathy kick in
“Every time you write about this topic, you help reduce the stigma,” Pa. Attorney General Josh Shapiro told journalists gathered in Harrisburg recently to explore ways of reporting on the opioid crisis.
But Shapiro warned his audience, “I can’t put into words the magnitude of this crisis, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better.
“It’s going to take a multi-disciplinary approach to reach a solution,” he added.
Journalists can be an important part of that approach. That was my take-away from the day-long session which featured themed panels on various aspect of the crisis. I wanted to attend the workshop because of my role as an editor and also because I’m part of a group of people concerned about the addiction issue in my community.
The opening panel was comprised of two mothers who had lost adult children, one mother whose daughters are in recovery and a recovering addict who now works in the treatment field.
The stories were familiar. I’ve heard them countless times. Parents first in denial then doing everything they possibly can to help and provide support as their son’s and daughter’s lives go down a dark path.
“I became addicted to his addiction,” said Vicki Gladfelter, who lost her son, Bob, in 2014. “I tried to think every day of how to keep him alive. I dreaded each day. I didn’t know what I would find when I walked into his bedroom.”
Wendy Loranzo lost her daughter, Elizabeth, in March. Now she’s helping Elizabeth’s boyfriend as he battles his addiction through medicine assisted treatment using vivitrole.
Elizabeth had completed beautician training and was planning to open her own shop when she overdosed. Wendy kept a red hair dryer Elizabeth had purchased.
“I use that red hair dryer on rough days,” Wendy said. “That’s when my daughter talks to me. ‘Mom,’ she says, ‘you’ve got to help people.’”
To that end, Wendy has started the Elizabeth Loranzo I Care Foundation to promote addiction awareness. Vicki Gladfelter started the York County chapter of Not One More. The anti-drug movement is made up of many such survivors.
Christine Campbell’s twin daughters survived heroin addiction thanks to methadone but she shared the same initial desperation as Wendy and Vicki.
“I didn’t know where to turn,” she said. “I felt so alone.”
We people in the media need to do a better job of letting people know what help and support is available.
“Showcase what is available,” Vicki urged those attending.
Likewise, by telling the stories of people like Christine’s daughters, we can help reduce the stigma associated with addiction and recovery.
“People in recovery need to share their stories,” said Mark McCullough, who has been in recovery since 2013. Mark is a recovery coach for RAISE, a York County treatment program.
“Addiction is a disease,” Mark explained, “not a moral issue.” That statement was repeated in variations by speakers throughout the day including Attorney General Shapiro.
Shapiro also emphasized another phrase often heard in relation to the crisis: “We cannot arrest our way out of this.”
“I’m not interested in racking up large numbers of street arrests,” Shapiro said, “I want to get to the sources.”
But not all those ‘sources’ Shapiro wants to go after are dealers in back allyways. He and some 40 other state attorney generals are going after pharmaceutical companies. It’s been estimated that 80 percent of all drug addictions begin with prescription medicine.
“We need to make them pay for the damage they’ve done,” Shapiro said, comparing drug and tobacco companies.
“Addiction is a disease, not a crime,” he added. “If we had more treatment available before a person gets into the criminal cycle, that would be a big help. It’s cheaper to treat than incarcerate.”
Several speakers touched on the lack of treatment facilities and personnel to handle the crisis.
“We need to increase the work force,” said recovery coach Mark McCullough. “We’re forced to do volume over outcome.”
“Without intervention, this always ends the same way,” said Hampton Township police chief Steven Junkin. “There needs to be a way of helping people other than putting them in the legal system.”
“We need a proper structure in place,” he added. “When we respond to a suicide call, there’s always a forced evaluation afterwards, but with drug users, there’s no follow through.”
But forced treatment can’t work, explained Pa. Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel, because of the lack available beds.
York County Coroner Pam Gay explained the “warm hand-off” approach. When someone is brought to a hospital after an overdose save, a recovery specialist begins working with that person right away.
“It makes a big difference in getting that person into treatment,” Gay said.
So how do we address this crisis?
Keynote speaker John Fetterman provided some interesting insight. Fetterman is the mayor of Braddock, Pa., the town where Andrew Carnegie started the steel industry in western Pennsylvana. Once a prosperous community of over 20,000, Braddock now has about 2,500 residents, mostly living in poverty.
Fetterman said the opioid crisis is like throwing a bucket of gasoline on a fire.
“It creates a flash and enlarges already existing problems,” he explained.
Though addiction crosses all economic and social lines, much drug use is tied to poverty and poverty often leads to crime and violence.
“We should never give up on these people, even when they give up on themselves,” he said.
“What we are doing isn’t working,” Fetterman said, “and in the absence of a comprehensive plan, the issue will continue to spread like wild fire.”
We’re working with a fragmented toolbox, he said.
“This isn’t a political issue. We need to find out what works and there’s just not enough of that going on right now. We need to put more money toward treatment and education.”
Getting the public involved is essential to dealing with the opioid crisis.
“Empathy kicks in when proximity kicks in,” Fetterman said, comparing the opioid crisis to the AIDS epidemic.
“Everyone’s voice is important because it will create a critical mass and force action to be taken,” he explained, “and the media will be the mechanism that gets us over that line.”