Addiction to opioids isn’t a lifestyle choice or a character flaw, it’s a chronic disease, says a coalition of Staten Island medical professionals spearheading an effort to treat addiction as a medical condition.
“If we understand that it’s a biological condition, something inherent in the individual, similar to someone who had diabetes or hypertension or cancer, then we can treat them just as we would someone who has diabetes or hypertension or cancer,’’ said Dr. Salvatore Volpe, a specialist in internal medicine, pediatrics and geriatrics affiliated with Staten Island University Hospital.
The stigma of addiction as shameful or criminal affects more than just the individual with the drug dependency.
In fact, they are often the ones least aware of it, said Luke Nasta, founder and chief executive officer of Camelot of Staten Island, which offers residential and outpatient services for those fighting addiction.
“It’s the family that’s hostage to the active addict,’’ he said. “The stigma prevents them from owning the problem and seeking a solution. The stigma handcuffs them and makes them unable to take aggressive action. And that aggressive action doesn’t mean getting them locked up. It means getting out of the house and getting free counseling. They won’t take it. It’s available. It’s free.”
Destroying the stigma that addiction is a sign of delinquency is a battle being forged by Staten Island Performing Provider System (PPS), a nonprofit collaboration of more than 75 health and social providers on the borough. Volpe is the chief medical officer of PPS.
It’s a critical step in battling the epidemic that has taken hold of the borough, its leaders say.
“People see it as being associated with criminal-like activities or it being a choice, without understanding how misusing opioids could really affect the brain,’’ said Victoria Njoku-Anokam, director of behavioral health at PPS. “There is still that lack of acceptance of it being a medical condition.’’