By Beth Treffeisen
As the opioid crisis continues to sweep across every city in the Commonwealth including Boston’s neighborhoods, the conversation about mental health and substance use disorders is beginning to change.
At a public forum, “Moving Beyond Stigma” held on Tuesday, May 23, at the Back Bay Events Center, conversations addressed stigma in mental health and substance use. The goals of the Forum were to promote a shift in the discussions that perpetuate stigma and to create a community in support of those struggling with these illnesses.
More than 600 policymakers, community leaders, clinicians, first responders, families and members of the public attended the forum that was hosted by Dr. David B. Herzog, an Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medial School and the Director of the William James College Public Education Series.
“It needs to be known that the illness is treatable, main-stream and human,” said Mayor Martin Walsh. “People struggling with addiction deserve our support and advocacy because they only want what we would want if we were in the same situation.”
He continued, “This work is not easy but it is critical and we need to stretch these conversations outside of these walls.”
Mayor Walsh proclaimed, Tuesday, May 23, 2017 to be A Day Without “stigMA”.
The proclamation stated that the conversations are shifting and that more people understand that mental health and substance use disorder are treatable and that prejudicial beliefs and attitudes associated with mental and substance use disorders are significant barriers to care.
In 2016 the opioid epidemic killed six people a day in Massachusetts.
“It is all around us,” said Herzog. “It is no longer just them – it is us. We lose more people to the opioid epidemic than with car accidents. Stigma is a major obstacle to getting help.”
He continued, “It is substance use disorder, not junkies and addicts. We are here to make solutions available. Join us, and let’s start this movement.”
“Moving Beyond Stigma” is part of the William James College Public Education series, which convenes thought leaders to address societal issues that affect mental health.
Founded in 1974 as an independent graduate school of psychology, William James College is the largest graduate psychology program in New England.
During a panel discussion, Sarah Wakeman the medical director for substance use disorder initiative at Massachusetts General Hospital said that there has been initiative to change Methadone Mile, located in the South End, to Recovery Road.
“Bridging that divide is critical,” said Wakeman. “I would like to think science and facts change people’s minds but unfortunately it doesn’t.”
Wakeman said that many people who are going through recovery and are on medication don’t like to talk about it because of the negative stigma.
There is has been a push to change Methadone Mile to Recovery Road because it is the spot in the city where people must go in order to get the drug methadone as part of treatment.
Another panelist, James O’Connell, the president of the Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Program, said that the corner of Recovery Road is the most common place for overdoses to occur within the city.
“We had so many overdoses in the lobby and in the bathrooms that we created a designated area to watch over them,” said O’Connell. “It has become a real eye opener to the epidemic but we had some concerns from the neighborhood.”
He continued, “They said they didn’t want this to become a draw for people to come in.”
After explaining that is for the people who are simply outside of the hospital, O’Connell said, the neighbors felt better.
“Right now is only for ten people but really we need an area for 40 people,” said O’Connell. “It is just a place to watch people for hours and watch the sedation until they wake up.”
In addition, he said, no doctor can just prescribe methadone to a patient, like they can with insulin with someone who has diabetes. That is why they have to go into treatment and the only place they can get treatment in the City is Methadone Mile.
“That is why it is called Methadone Mile…there is only a couple of places and everyone has to go to the same spot,” said O’Connell. “Because it is all in one spot that is where the drug dealers are going to go; the place where 600 people a day are going to get treatment.”
Another panelist, Haner Hernandez PhD, from the Center of Alcohol and Addiction Studies at Brown University, said that there are multiple ways to recovery.
He said, “If anything, we need to work harder on prevention otherwise we’re always going to be recovering.”