Treating the Person – Not the Addiction – Can Help Reduce Overdose Deaths
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Published on August 31, 2021

man sitting on couch drink in hands

Treating the Person – Not the Addiction – Can Help Reduce Overdose Deaths

Melissa Flynn isn’t an addiction researcher, but she understands how addiction can blow in like a tornado and destroy families. Three years ago, an opioid overdose took the life of her stepson, Nicholas.

A recent national survey found that only two states – New Hampshire and South Dakota – saw decreases in overdose in the last year. Yet Flynn knows our entire country still has miles to go in order to address this crisis.

“Addiction is brain disease, and it’s a family illness,” she said. “The person you love who’s addicted is still that person you love. They’re the same, but their brain has changed. Too many people fail to see this truth.”

Flynn said that while efforts to help people with substance use disorders and to reframe the discussion of this health problem have made some strides, improvements must continue. She partners with other parents who have suffered her same fate. She’s no longer just thinking about it – she’s an advocate with a mission.

“I never understood people who have a calling – not until the funeral,” Flynn said. “I realize I am imperfect, but I call on God to help me with my messages to others, so if I can help one person in an audience, even for a few minutes – that’s a victory.”

The Crisis of Addiction in America

Flynn pulls no punches – she sees the United States and its reality as a full-blown addiction crisis. Every town and city can do better by developing more resources for every addict. She’s not alone

“If we can ensure early education on addiction is taught in all schools, to all children, we can affect good changes,” said Malia Holbeck, LCSW, LAC, outpatient manager with Avera’s Addiction Recovery Program. Other suggestions Holbeck recommends include:

  • Making sure intervention tools are in place along all points in the addiction journey
  • Putting anti-overdose drugs like Narcan (Naloxone) in place everywhere, from schools and churches to busses and grocery stores
  • Offering more 24/7 treatment assessment options for addicts who want to start recovery

These starting points go back to the root reason why so many people with substance use disorders face lonely, relapse-likely situations: mindsets that need to change.

“We can’t arrest our way out of this crisis,” Flynn said. “We paint the person facing a substance use disorder in such negative light in all our popular media. The bad guy is always a drug user or drug seller. We need to adjust our attitudes if we’re going to save lives.”

Opening up can help everyone – people who have substance use disorders, the families who love them, coworkers and survivors. Using resources can also be helpful.

“We went through more than 10 years of the tornado that is addiction, and it took me time to realize I had to change my approaches to it,” she said. “Families who unify in the fight can hope to do better.”

Working to Change Systems and Minds, Too

“An addiction economist I respect said we’ll overcome this challenge, we need 10 hands ready to help for every hand reaching out in need,” Flynn said. “That’s true. But finding the best way to help your loved one is also important.”

guitar donated to the Avera Addiction Care CenterHolbeck echoed Flynn’s perspectives. She said no two families are the same, and so finding an approach requires careful management and flexible response

“Kindness and compassion have to be included in the mixture,” Holbeck said. “There are many approaches other than just tough love or enabling.”

Holbeck said there can be frustration, but working with addiction care experts can help families find their ways through these multi-layered challenges.

“Shaming and blaming will not work,” Flynn said. “It comes back to realizing they are people we love. Center on that as you face the problem with them. Start there.”

Flynn and her family honored her late stepson through a donation to the Avera Addiction Care Center. He was a music lover, so they purchased a guitar that’s available for residents who wish to play.

Learn more about addiction care resources that can help you or your family.

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