What We Can Learn About Stigma From COVID-19

What We Can Learn About Stigma From COVID-19

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What is Stigma?

Stigma is a mark of shame or disgrace. It’s a stereotype associated with some quality or condition attached to a person or group of people. This label causes the group to be treated differently by society. 

Stigma can be anything from racism to prejudice towards religions or those with mental health issues.  The latter includes addiction, which has seen its fair share of shame for a long time now.

Unfortunately, what’s happening as COVID-19 overtakes the globe and, most recently, America, is despite recent support of stigma-free campaigns for mental health and substance use disorders, addiction is still suffering the consequences of being stigmatized.

Addiction vs. COVID-19

Addiction claims tens of thousands of lives of many people every year. According to the CDC In 2017, that number was approximately 70,000 deaths from drug overdose alone[1]. That does not include those who died from accidental deaths due to intoxication, or those who suffered and died from long-term health problems like liver failure that was a direct result of substance abuse.

These figures actually bring the total mortality to about double what we see from overdose deaths alone. Given this figure, we’re talking about 384 people per day due to drugs in America.  When we look at COVID-19, we see that since the first US case, we’re over 700 deaths per day[2]. Many might look at this no further, seeing that it’s almost twice as deadly. This is the reason why everyone’s in such a panic about it. But America’s drug epidemic has been going on for decades.

Imagine if a virus that was nearly as deadly as the Coronavirus took over our country half a century, continuing to spread and re-spread around, killing people every day. While this may sound like the flu, influenza kills about 161 people per day in America. 

Warranted Reaction?

We’re seeing a relative overreaction when we compare the national and media attention given to COVID-19 with that of substance use disorders. Or maybe the reaction is appropriate, and it was actually an under-reaction to addiction. Whether we’re talking about daily presidential briefings or around the clock news coverage, addiction has never gotten the attention and quick action that the Coronavirus pandemic is commanding so far.

While the opioid epidemic has raged on since the late 90s, only over the last few years has anyone gained notable traction in stopping it. It has only recently started to receive the attention of lawmakers, politicians, and pharmaceutical companies, who have no other choice but to start doing something about it as a public health crisis.  

Yet within a couple of months, COVID-19 has the nation on lock-down and afraid. The economy has virtually ground to a halt, and panic has resulted in some of the most unusual patterns of behavior we’ve witnessed in a long time, like nationwide hoarding of toilet paper.

While there are distinct differences between a condition like substance use disorder and Coronavirus, media coverage is just one of the ways it has become clear that stigma is the main reason why we treat these two crises differently.   

Stigma Strikes Again

It started back in late February. The media was ramping up its coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, the Trump Administration quietly defunded the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration. Without much attention, there was a diversion of $4.9 million away from substance abuse and mental health programs to be used for Coronavirus relief[3]. And while it’s evident that the COVID-19 pandemic needs aid and funding, taking money from one lifesaving service to finance another is shortsighted and prejudiced.

At a basic level, all this communicates is that our society views victims of the virus as more important.  We deem addicts as less than, and there are multiple examples as this type of behavior continues. A Chief of Police in Indiana ordered his officers not to give Narcan, the lifesaving opioid overdose reversal drug, to anyone who appeared to be overdosing on opioids. Instead, he only wants medical personnel with proper protective equipment to administer it[4].

He explains that this is to protect the officers. Since those who overdose on opioids suffer respiratory failure, they often gasp, cough, and grab at the person administering it as they quite literally come back to life.  Instead, he wants them to wait at least six feet away until further help arrives. It’s implicit that these moments spent waiting could mean the difference between life and death. 

The stigma embedded in an example like this may be tough to spot at first. But the fact that this police chief is the only one doing this is the first red flag. Furthermore, there are other types of emergencies that officers might arrive on where helping the victim puts them at risk of contracting COVID-19. Are they supposed to stand back and wait at those too? 

Assuming this is not a blanket order for all emergencies, and he didn’t issue a separate order for each possible type of emergency, we can say with confidence that he only issued this type of order for drug overdoses.

He also felt the need to speak with the media about the difficulty of his decision. Apparently, this Chief of Police considers drug addicts to be the only population not worth risking the lives of his officers for during this pandemic.

Final Thoughts

It’s just easier for society to think of COVID-19 patients as blameless victims than those who struggle with substance abuse. Virtually everyone is in fear of getting the virus, but this isn’t the case for addiction. You can’t “catch” it from a cough. Social distancing and isolation aren’t required.  When someone gets arrested for drug possession, we look down on them. When they get put in quarantine due to infection, we feel bad for them.

Stigma is just so much more prevalent toward mental health. There’s no pathogen to be mad at, so it usually just winds up being the person. This misplaced blame may be why addiction is still so rampant, despite us knowing it’s been a severe problem for decades. COVID-19 will likely pass, but there are social factors at play that could perpetuate substance abuse for the foreseeable future.

[1] https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db356.htm

[2] https://www.statista.com/statistics/1109281/covid-19-daily-deaths-compared-to-all-causes/

[3] https://www.thenationalcouncil.org/press-releases/administrations-decision-to-transfer-funds-from-samhsa-in-response-to-coronavirus/

[4] https://abcnews.go.com/US/officials-worry-potential-spike-overdose-deaths-amid-covid/story?id=70149746


What COVID-19 Tells Us About Stigma

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About The Author
Joseph Kertis
Joseph Kertis is an experienced healthcare professional turned journalist. He started his journey in the medical field ten years ago as a Certified Nursing Assistant for a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center. His career blossomed, and within a decade, he became the Clinical Director. His experience in the field of substance abuse and addiction recovery provides a unique insight into one of our Nation’s most challenging epidemics. He utilizes this knowledge in his writing to give an expert viewpoint that spreads awareness through education. He is a featured author of the healthcare website ECDOL.org.
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