Confronting stigma in recognition of International Overdose Awareness Day

Each year on August 31st, International Overdose Awareness Day (IOAD) is observed with the goal of raising awareness about overdose while also working to break down the many facets of stigma related to both substance use and recovery.

Observance of Overdose Awareness Day presents an important opportunity to advocate for the continued need for community-based recovery support services and treatments like those provided by CHD and also raise awareness around overdose and harm reduction resources as a preventative measure against overdose-related death or injury.

Now in its 20th year, IOAD is an initiative led by the Penington Institute. The initiative now spans across 39 countries, which speaks to the growing prevalence of substance use and injury or death related to overdose on a global scale and the continued need for advocacy, awareness, and services to aid recovery throughout all communities.

As COVID-19 continues to present new and unique challenges in the communities CHD serves, it has also had an immense impact on those in recovery and those active in substance use, especially in the barriers it has created to supportive services for those in recovery and harm reduction resources for those active in substance use.

Ingrid Agis, program director of CHD’s FIRST (Families In Recovery SupporT) Steps Together in Easthampton and Pittsfield, a peer coaching support program for mothers recovering from opioid dependence, explained that there are many ways stigma is perpetuated against people who are active in substance use or are in recovery and how that stigma plays a role in the experience of overdose.

“Stigma exists everywhere, and it’s especially prevalent in the world of recovery,” Agis said. “It can be difficult to address stigma and bias because you see it in so many ways: in the language we use, in how we treat people and in the unconscious thoughts we have when you meet or interact with someone you know who is in recovery.”

Agis explained that stigma is harmful to both those in recovery and those active in substance use in how it impacts social perception. She said it can also negatively impact an individual’s access to harm reduction resources and other important community supports, discouraging them from asking for this kind of help.

Agis added that it’s sometimes especially hard to create this kind of connection to support in smaller communities like many in western Massachusetts, especially in areas where many residents know one another. In these types of communities, it can be hard for those who were previously active in substance use and are now in recovery to get others out of the mindset that they’re actively using. And moreover, it can be difficult for those in need of harm reduction resources to find adequate support.

“The more we talk about recovery and share experiences with it, the better it is to spread awareness,” Agis said. “I think education on harm reduction and how we can keep ourselves and people around us as safe and informed as possible is really important, both in recovery and in general.”

Tapestry is a CHD partner and a local agency dedicated to providing resources on overdose prevention to people in active substance use and people at high risk of having or seeing an overdose, including Narcan (naloxone) access and training, community education on recognizing, preventing, and reversing an overdose, and referrals to treatment programs and medical care.

Agis affirms that for those in active substance use, harm reduction strategies are what’s going to prevent an overdose, including the ability to recognize the symptoms and provide education on how to use Narcan to reverse an overdose.

Another strategy is to provide a safe space for open dialogue with someone active in substance use and help develop an overdose plan with trusted friends and family. This way, the individual can let a member of their support network know when they’re going to use in the moment; they can leave their door unlocked or ajar to allow for someone to check on them, or try not to use by themselves if they can avoid it. The support person can also have the individual call them afterward or ask the individual if they’d like them to be in the space with them.

Safe spaces for open dialogue can also be crucial for those in recovery to talk about their experiences, which is oftentimes a key aspect.

“Having a support system that’s open minded is oftentimes so important,” Agis said. “When someone is struggling, there’s something truly powerful that happens when they feel comfortable to say ‘I am having a really bad day’ or ‘I am struggling and I need support in this area.’”

In addition to a support network comprising loved ones and recovery coaches, the relationships formed among those in recovery can really help create a real sense of community where they feel safe and comfortable to share their experiences and embrace support from others, especially their peers.

“It’s beautiful to see, and a great aspect of the world of recovery,” Agis said. “They’re always willing to be there for one another and help each other along their journeys. Oftentimes it’s not just your recovery coach and your family who support you in recovery, it’s the members you meet and the relationships you make through the group and your experience that help guide you, too.”

While COVID-19 has prevented FIRST Steps Together from holding groups in person and required the program to move to a virtual space, the arrangement has simultaneously created an opportunity to extend the community. Previously, both programs in Easthampton and Pittsfield held their groups separately because they were held in person. Now that they’re virtual, some groups are conducted together, and it’s allowed those served an opportunity to expand their sense of community support.

For more information about CHD’s resources to support recovery, please visit https://chd.org/programs-services/recovery-houses-western-ma/.

“The more we talk about recovery and share experiences with it, the better it is to spread awareness. I think education on harm reduction and how we can keep ourselves and people around us as safe and informed as possible is really important, both in recovery and in general.”

– Ingrid Agis, Program Director, FIRST Steps Together