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NBC 10 I-Team: Stigma of addiction worsening overdose crisis

A staggering 336 people in Rhode Island died from drug overdoses in 2016, a number experts say could be reduced if people suffering from opiate addiction and their families weren’t stigmatized. (WJAR)

A staggering 336 people in Rhode Island died from drug overdoses in 2016, a number experts say could be reduced if people suffering from opiate addiction and their families weren’t stigmatized.

Shame, fear and guilt can keep addicts and their families from seeking help, sometimes until it’s too late, said Rebecca Boss, Director of Rhode Island’s Department of Behavioral Healthcare. She gathered with experts from across Rhode Island to discuss battling that stigma on Smith Hill Wednesday.

"Someone who's living with shame, living with guilt, living with a view of themselves like they're not worthy, might not feel like they should access treatment, or might not feel like they can access treatment,” Boss said.

Overdose deaths were up 15 percent from 2015 to 2016, a sign that the overdose epidemic continues to ravage Southern New England.

"We have to find out what's keeping people from getting the help they need,” Boss said. “What aren't we doing?"

Public stigma impacts loved ones, too.

A Richmond family sat down with the NBC 10 I-Team in May, just days after losing their son to an overdose on Mother’s Day. The family asked NBC 10 to conceal their faces, worried about the repercussions they might encounter in their small community.

"We are a good family. He was raised in a good family,” the young man’s father said.

“It was something that took him over, and changed him,” said his sister.

The stigma goes beyond using drugs, to getting medical help.

Boss said medication assisted treatment, including using drugs like Suboxone and Methadone, is proven to save lives of those who otherwise would likely overdose.

But some doctors still steer patients and their families away.

"It's simply the fact that it saves lives,” Boss said.

Rhode Island’s Opiate Taskforce has worked hard make medication-assisted treatment more accessible in the state, Boss said, a step that she hopes has saved lives.

So far in 2017, at least 170 people in Rhode Island have died from overdoses. While the statistic is grim, the number is fewer than at the same time last year.

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