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Stigma Worse Now Than Ever Amid COVID-19

Marcel Gemme By Marcel Gemme | Last Updated: 12 July 2024

The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us several things so far. For example, our medical and rehabilitation systems were unprepared for a crisis like this. For a while, hospitals were out of needed equipment, from ventilators down to face masks.

The substance abuse treatment industry, which has at its core a group therapy and living model, has been left with few answers about how to proceed in the face of these new circumstances. But the pandemic has also shown us how stigma works, and why it prevents progress from happening in the nation’s drug epidemic.

  • What You'll Learn

Stigma is a mark of shame or disgrace that’s associated with a particular group of people. It’s a stereotype based on anything from religion to medical and mental health conditions. The AIDS epidemic of the 1980s resulted in a lot of stigma towards patients, causing those who were HIV-positive to be shunned.

Our society held on to this viewpoint long past the point where science had proven it was ridiculous to avoid touching someone who had the virus out of fear. Today, we’re educated on stigma and how it works, with many stigma-free groups and activists lobbying to end stigma towards things like mental health and addiction.

Yet, we still see stigma occurring and playing out dramatically amid a pandemic that’s filling people with fear. This stigma isn’t towards COVID-19 patients, who are forced into quarantine. It’s toward those who struggle with substance use disorder. For a good part of history, our society categorized addiction as a moral shortcoming, with people punished and fined rather than helped.

Only within the last couple of years have we started to see positive changes in reversing statistics of overdose deaths. Our country accomplished this by putting the spotlight on addiction. To such an extent, the public forced politicians and lawmakers to do something or be viewed as negligent.

Stigma-free movements have also taken root, especially in communities struck with drug problems. These have become popular over the last decade, as people who’ve lost loved ones to addiction or have struggled with it themselves are fighting for a more humanized approach to dealing with the nation’s drug epidemic.

The AMA has recognized substance abuse as a disease process, and the jury’s been out that it’s far more complicated than a moral problem. But despite progress, we see the same type of lag in acceptance of these facts as the AIDS epidemic saw in the ’80s. Will addiction ever be viewed without this stigma?

In late February, as COVID-19 was making its way from overseas, the Trump Administration began looking for ways to fund an inevitable fight against the pandemic. They decided to divert $4.9 million in funding away from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration to do so.

While it’s understandable that the fight against coronavirus needs financing, it’s odd to do so by taking money from a decades-long battle against another epidemic that is killing people every day as well. The National Council for Behavioral Health’s president stated after the news broke, calling the decision to transfer the funds the “quickest way to interrupt progress in the fight against the opioid epidemic.”

More recently, an Indiana Chief of Police exemplified addiction stigma when he ordered his officers not to administer Narcan to overdosing addicts. Should his officers arrive first on a scene where a person is overdosing on opioids, he wants the officers to stand back at least six feet away and wait.

Medical personnel with appropriate PPE would then arrive and administer the lifesaving drug that reverses opioid overdose. In an interview with a news outlet, he explained that this was to protect his officers, should the person overdosing have COVID-19. What doesn’t add up about this is the order doesn’t include any of the other emergencies an officer might encounter where a person needs lifesaving help but requires close contact from them. Let’s assume these are still allowed.

These examples show how systemic stigma still exists for those who struggle with addiction. The message that comes through is clear and straightforward; the life of an addict is less important.

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Marcel Gemme has been helping people struggling with addiction for over 19 years. He first started as an intake counselor for a drug rehabilitation center in 2000. During his 5 years as an intake counselor, he helped many addicts get the treatment they needed. He also dealt with the families and friends of those people; he saw first-hand how much strain addiction puts on a family and how it can tear relationships apart. With drug and alcohol problems constantly on the rise in the United States and Canada, he decided to use the Internet as a way to educate and help many more people in both those countries. This was 15 years ago. Since then, Marcel has built two of the largest websites in the U.S. and Canada which reach and help millions of people each year. He is an author and a leader in the field of drug and alcohol addiction. His main focus is threefold: education, prevention and rehabilitation. To this day, he still strives to be at the forefront of technology in order to help more and more people. He is a Licensed Drug and Alcohol Treatment Specialist graduate with Honours of Stratford Career Institute. Marcel has also received a certificate from Harvard for completing a course entitled The Opioid Crisis in America and a certificate from The University of Adelaide for completing a course entitled AddictionX: Managing Addiction: A Framework for Succesful Treatment.