HOUGHTON – The Western Upper Peninsula Health Department (WUPHD) has expanded to address Substance Use Disorder (SUD), both as a disorder and as a brain disease, in the community because SUD, as a disease of the brain, has reached a public health crisis, worldwide, across the country and in the land of copper.
“Drug addiction is now considered a chronic, recurrent and potentially fatal disease”, said Gail Ploe, health education coordinator at WUPHD. “And so, if you, or anyone else, is interested in knowing more about addiction as a disease, you can literally look at the Surgeon General’s report in 2016. He published a really long report called Facing. Addiction in America, and this report definitely puts an end once and for all to the argument as to whether addiction, or substance use disorder, is a disease.
The report Ploe is referring to is that the US Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Surgeon General released the results of a study, published as The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health in 2016 , states, on pages 1-6:
“Dependence: The most serious form of substance use disorder associated with compulsive or uncontrolled use of one or more substances. Substance abuse is a chronic brain disease that has the potential for recurrence (relapse) and recovery. “
Ploe said SUD fits the medical model on several levels.
“There is an organ, it’s your brain; he has a defect; and you have symptoms ”, she said. “And sometimes those symptoms are unpleasant – people do and say things they wouldn’t normally do in the midst of addiction, but it’s treatable.”
Once someone goes into treatment and gets help, she explained, they become a productive member of society again, “And these symptoms, these horrible things that we hate: lying, dishonesty, cheating, stealing, neglecting your children – these go away, because people are getting better. They are improving.
The Surgeon General’s report adds that “Research on alcohol and drug use, and drug addiction, has led to an increase in knowledge and a clear conclusion: alcohol or drug addiction is a chronic but treatable brain disease that requires intervention. medical, not a moral judgment. “
The moral judgment mentioned in the report is something Ploe is keenly aware of. She referred to an old saying: “What causes people to seek treatment? Livers, lovers and lawyers. It is a saying in reference to moral judgments, public shame and stigma aimed at those who want treatment. The public view of those who suffer from SUD and those who want to overcome it are actually barriers to seeking or getting help, until it is too late. The consequences are the loss of physical health, wives and families and / or court hearings.
“You have to get to a point” Ploë said, “What gets people into treatment is that they understand, on some level, that ‘I’m out of control and need help’ or ‘I’m starting to take too many painkillers “or” I drink too much. ‘ And there’s no shame, there’s no stigma that they could access care early on in the process, before things got really bad, and they might say, “Hey, I? need help. ”They could talk to their doctor or a family member, and they would understand,“ Hey, here’s where I get help, here’s where I go for help, and I can enter this system without fear of being judged, without fear of shame. “
In addition to the social stigma, the recent pandemic and subsequent closures that have forced people to self-isolate have only exacerbated the problem.
“This is an epidemic within the pandemic”, said Ploe. “In 2020, we lost 93,000 people to drug overdoses. This is more than what we lost at the height of the opioid crisis. “
To put that number into perspective, the population of Houghton County is 36,000.
“We know that addiction and mental health problems don’t get better in isolation” remarked Ploe. “People need connection, they need community. They need treatment. Then, in the midst of the pandemic, the isolation exacerbated substance use disorders and mental health issues, and we lost far too many people. “
Although addiction is an illness, it is treatable. It is not curable, but it is treatable. To accomplish treatment, Ploe said, to make treatment and recovery more accessible, as well as more effective, requires understanding, compassion and support from the community.
“It’s preventable” said Ploe. “But the only way people can get help (is) if we provide a safe space for them to be honest about their alcohol and / or drug use, without judgment, without stigma. . “
There is no such thing as a throwaway person, Ploe said. The health department is part of the FACE program, which has done a huge community assessment focused on the SUD. For the assessment, Ploe said she conducted more than 20 key informant interviews, in which she spent 30 to 90 minutes speaking with people, including Judge Mark Wisti.
“I asked her what we could do to help people with SUD in our community. His first comment was “we can start by not insulting them”. You know, we call them ‘junkies’ and ‘drunks’ and that only increases the stigma and creates barriers for people to get help. “
Ploe said an important message she is trying to get across to the public is that those who suffer from SUD are members of the community, not strangers. When the public labels “Junkies” and “Drunks”, they do not speak are not “these people.”
“People who suffer from substance use disorders are not ‘those people’,” she said. “It’s our husbands, and our daughters, and our neighbors, and our friends, and you know, (it’s time) to break down that barrier, and to really, really step into the arena and start helping people. This is what the Department of Health is trying to do.
The Surgeon General’s report is available at https://addiction.surgeongeneral.gov/sites/default/files/surgeon-generals-report.pdf.