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Study sheds light on how families overcome opioid stigma

A round table discussion will be held by the USDA and local leaders on April 11th

A recent study by USU researchers and collaborators from Wayne State in Michigan interviewed 34 family members impacted by a loved one’s nonmedical opioid use, to determine their experience with stigmatization.

Assistant professor Sydney O’Shay, lead author on the study, defined stigma. “Stigma involves the discrediting of a person, or a group of people, based on an undesirable social attribute,” O'Shay said.

O’Shay said family members experienced stigma due to their loved one’s opioid use, but that individuals often progressed from an early stage where they isolated themselves to avoid being stigmatized and judged, to a place of healthy coping.

“Over time, they become advocates then for themselves and for their family members. And then they start to challenge this stigma. They largely do this through educating others: by helping others learn more about opioid use and how it impacts the family, and helping others understand that nonmedical opioid use is not a sign of a moral failing, but it is a health struggle that can impact anybody," O'Shay said.

In the early stages individuals may exhibit what O’Shay calls internalized behaviors, such as passive acceptance where they don’t openly challenge stigmatized views of nonmedical opioid use. Others, often parents, may experience guilt and self-blame. However, as family members progress, she said they often begin to show externalized behaviors around stigma.

“They are saying things like, ‘Folks misunderstand opioid use,' and, 'I take it as my responsibility to help educate others to help reduce this stigma.' And they boldly advocate for themselves and for their loved ones. So they don't hide anymore; they don't express shame. They pick this up as the cause," O'Shay said.

Given the results of this study, O’Shay said the paper makes recommendations on how therapists and social workers can help family members experiencing nonmedical opioid use stigma.

Max is a neuroscientist and science reporter. His research revolves around an underexplored protein receptor, called GPR171, and its possible use as a pharmacological target for pain. He reports on opioids, outer space and Great Salt Lake. He loves Utah and its many stories.