U.S. Must Reduce Stigma to Combat Opioid Epidemic

Jerome Adams, U.S. surgeon general, said nurses need to be advocates and leaders that tear down stigma around addiction.

US surgeon general Jerome Adams
Jerome Adams, U.S. surgeon general, is an anesthesiologist. He still works about one shift a month at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where he focuses on acute and chronic pain management. (Photo credit: GW Nursing)
October 03, 2018

By Kristen Mitchell

It’s critical that health care professionals work to destigmatize addiction, educate the community and seek out unconventional partnerships in order to tackle the opioid epidemic that affects millions of families across the country, said Jerome Adams, the U.S. surgeon general.

Dr. Adams, an anesthesiologist by training, spoke to the George Washington University community on Monday as part of the School of Nursing’s Center for Health Policy and Media Engagement’s health policy leadership lecture series.

For Dr. Adams, the opioid epidemic is personal. His younger brother is serving a 10-year prison sentence after stealing $200 to fuel his opioid addiction. Dr. Adams sees a blessing in this situation—his brother is alive. More than 115 people die every day in the United States after overdosing on opioids, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The addiction in his own family shows how pervasive this epidemic is, said Dr. Adams, who was appointed surgeon general by President Donald Trump.  

“If this can happen to the brother of the United States surgeon general, it can happen to any of us,” he said. “If I wasn’t able to prevent it or mitigate it on my own, none of us can do it alone.”

Opioid use has been on the rise since the 1990s when physicians increased opioid painkiller prescriptions after pharmaceutical companies assured they weren’t addictive as long as they were used to treat a medical diagnosis. This led to widespread misuse before it became clear these medications could be highly addictive. Today, most heroin users first got hooked on opioids through prescription drugs.

Jerome Adams

GW's Lawrence Deyton (left) and Kate Driscoll Malliarakis participate in a discussion with Jerome Adams, U.S. surgeon general, in the Marvin Center's Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre. (Photo credit: GW Nursing)

Dr. Adams applauded GW Nursing’s commitment to top-notch clinical care and advancing conversations about health care policy. By analyzing policy, health care professionals can understand the systemic forces that create situations where patients need care.

It’s important for medical professionals to be informed about effective treatment for addiction and to dispel myths when they hear them. There is nothing more powerful than a respected advocate and leader who is armed with the research and the facts, Dr. Adams said.

Pamela Jeffries, dean of GW Nursing, welcomed Dr. Adams to the university before his address. She said the opioid epidemic is a “critical issue plaguing the health and the wellness of the American people.” Tony Yang, professor of health services and policy researcher, said the surgeon general could be instrumental in developing partnerships focused on cost effective and humane prevention efforts.

Dr. Adams said one of the most important things he can do as surgeon general is help change the way the public looks at addiction and other stigmatized health concerns. Stigma keeps people from coming forward and getting the help they need. The American public needs to know that recovery is possible, he said.

“We have to see addiction as a chronic disease, not a moral failing, and it must be treated with skill, with urgency and more importantly, it’s got to be treated with compassion,” Dr. Adams said.

More than half of all Americans who die from drug overdose die at home, Dr. Adams said. An opioid overdose can create long-term damage in a matter of minutes, which is why first responders commonly carry naloxone, a medication administered through a nasal spray or shot that quickly reverses opioid overdose.

Earlier this year, Dr. Adams released an advisory that emphasized the importance of naloxone and recommended that family, friends and individuals personally at risk for overdose keep the drug on hand. Dr. Adams encouraged everyone to know the signs of an opioid overdose—including disordered breathing, pinpoint pupils and low consciousness—and to be ready to respond.

“You can’t get someone into recovery if they’re dead,” he said.

Following Dr. Adams’ address, he participated in a panel and Q & A session alongside Lawrence Deyton, senior associate dean for clinical public health, and Kate Driscoll Malliarakis, associate professor of nursing.

Politics and Society


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Experts discussed the opioid epidemic and the harrowing effect it has had on communities at a GW forum.

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