The Helping to End Addiction Long-term® Initiative, or NIH HEAL Initiative®, approaches the opioid crisis from two major angles: enhancing pain management and addressing opioid misuse and addiction. From mindfulness meditation to aid in recovery from addiction to studies to understand a person’s individual response to pain, researchers in hundreds of funded projects across the country are exploring diverse paths to reach these goals and overcome obstacles.
“Stigma is a major obstacle to our efforts to help end the opioid crisis,” said Rebecca G. Baker, Ph.D., director of the NIH HEAL Initiative. “We not only recognize the barriers stigma creates for people with pain and addiction but are working intentionally to address stigma through HEAL research.”
That’s why the NIH HEAL Initiative’s inaugural Investigator Meeting in January dedicated a plenary panel to a conversation about stigma, which was a recurrent theme in discussions of research across the initiative.
The Surgeon General of the United States, VADM Jerome Adams, M.D., M.P.H., headlined the panel, after his keynote address on stigma.
Starting a conversation about stigma
It can’t be easy to tell a roomful of strangers about your little brother’s struggle with addiction. But that’s exactly what the Surgeon General of the United States did at the HEAL Investigator Meeting.
“I’m often asked, as Surgeon General, what I think the biggest killer is out there, whether it’s cigarettes or obesity or fentanyl,” said Adams. “I feel the biggest killer out there is actually stigma.”
Adams’ brother Phillip had anxiety and depression at a young age. He started using alcohol, then marijuana. One day, someone gave him a pill at a party. That soon led Phillip to heroin, and eventually he started committing crimes to support his addiction. Now he is incarcerated.
Adams believes Phillip self-medicated his anxiety and depression with drugs and alcohol — and that stigma made his mental health and addiction worse.
“We know that there is a stigma attached to acknowledging that you have mental health issues,” Adams said, adding that drug addiction is often seen as a moral failing, too. “If we’d looked at it as a disease, perhaps my brother would have been given help sooner, before his addiction worsened and before he got involved in the criminal justice system.”