By Alison Knopf
The best way to fight stigma against opioid treatment programs (OTPs) is to bring the programs themselves out in the open—and that’s finally starting to happen.
“OTPs set themselves up like they’re in a back alley somewhere,” said Wilma Townsend, MSW, the top methadone patient advocate expert at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “They can’t do that. They need to set themselves up in the medical environment.”
She recalled that it used to be the same way with cancer—people were ashamed of it, and didn’t talk about it. “That’s the way it used to be with all illnesses,” she said.
Instead, patients who are in recovery and taking methadone need to stand up and show how well they are doing. “And it can’t be one person, it has to be a large number of people,” said Ms. Townsend. “You can’t fight stigma if the people themselves feel they have something to be ashamed of.”
Next time there is a recovery march on the mall in Washington, as there was last October, there should be a “whole section of people” who are proud that they’re taking medication and are alive, she said. “That’s what we need to get to.”
Walter Ginter, CMA, project director at Medication Assisted Recovery Services (MARS), said that the problem is that the public—and even patients themselves—view methadone as a “substitute” instead of a medication. Mr. Ginter described a MARS presentation showing PET scans of three brains—a control brain (no history of opioid dependence), the brain of a patient who had been in methadone maintenance treatment for five years, and the brain of a person who was formerly dependent on opioids, but who had been abstinent for five years. Patients expect that the “abstinent” brain will look just like the “control” brain, but in fact, the methadone patient’s brain was healthier at the time of death than the abstinent patient’s brain.
“Brains on methadone heal faster than abstinent brains,” said Mr. Ginter. “This blows patients away.” The best way to attack stigma, he said, is through education.