Guest Column: Community must join together to battle substance abuse

Guest Column: Community must join together to battle substance abuse

One in three families nationwide must cope with addiction and substance abuse, and Pennsylvania is no exception. In the past year alone, an estimated 20 million people in the United States were classified with substance use disorder.

The numbers are staggering. Yet our country still has not come to terms with the enormous challenge we face in combatting the problem, particularly the prescription opioid and heroin epidemic that has seemingly exploded in recent years.

A major factor is the stigma associated with addiction. Despite huge advances in medical understanding and knowledge – which shows addiction is actually a disease of the brain – far too many people have the antiquated notion that addiction is a moral failing. That view perpetuates a stigma that prompts many individuals and their families who are struggling with addiction to suffer in silence or refuse to seek the help and counsel that is available to them.

As the heroin and opioid epidemic grows, it seems nearly every family has had a loved one go through such a challenge, or at least know someone else who does. We are beginning to see more and more individuals and families bravely step up and try to break through the stigma.

Education is a vital part of it: we need to do more to help inform people about how they can stay off the path to addiction — and how to recognize the signs when a friend or loved one is in need.

Our elected officials are making progress in an attempt to address the problem through new policies and programs. The recently enacted state budget provides funds for 45 centers of excellence in Pennsylvania that are projected to treat nearly 11,000 people with substance use disorders. In August a new prescription drug monitoring program went into effect in Pennsylvania that allows doctors, pharmacists and other providers to monitor the number of opioids prescribed, and to track patients’ prescriptions. Recently-passed federal legislation takes further steps to help communities like ours cope.

More recently, Gov. Tom Wolf called on the Pennsylvania House and Senate to hold a joint legislative session in September and October to pass new laws and programs to combat the heroin and opioid epidemic that is plaguing Pennsylvania communities.

These are important issues, and I am glad to see the Legislature work in a bipartisan manner to help combat the epidemic. But public policy is only a part of the battle. Another battle is one we must fight as individuals in our own household and in our own communities.

This summer, a group of local residents announced the formation of Springfield Cares, a non-profit organization made up of people on the front line of combating the opioid epidemic. One of its key messages: Those who are struggling in silence are not alone. They want people to know that there are neighbors in their own community who have gone through or are currently going through similar struggles. And it aims to educate members of our own Springfield community of the help that is available when its needed.

It’s my privilege to play a role in this effort as a member of the group’s board.

There are people available to lean on, many of whom have been through the struggle themselves and who persevered through seemingly hopeless situations. It’s time to end the stigma of addiction. It’s time we help people understand the crisis and what can be done to help those in need. And we all have a role to play.

Alex Charlton of Springfield is the Republican candidate for state representative in the Pennsylvania’s 165th Legislative District.