Kansas City experts fight to end the stigma around substance use recovery

KANSAS CITY, Mo. Kansas City resident Keith Gale can still remember his mother’s tears as she pleaded with him to begin substance use recovery in 2010.

He began drinking heavily in 2008 while, like so many others with substance use disorder, dealt with trauma.

It kind of became comfortable not being sober because I didn’t have to deal with any of those emotions, he said. I didn’t have to worry about what people thought of me.

This quickly developed into much worse habits.

Within a year and a half, I was homeless and using meth daily, he said.

About two years after he started drinking, Gale said he tried to get help.

Today, nearly 15 years later, she said she still has ups and downs.

The whole process from 15 years ago until now, it’s just been up, down, sideways, around this twist, around this twist. It’s not as simple a path as many people think, she said.

Ken Vick, executive director of Benilda Hall recovery center in Kansas City, said substance use was a treatable condition.

But one of the biggest hurdles that often gets in the way is how we as a society think about the recovery, he said.

Some of the stigmas are starting to disappear, but there’s still a lot of stigma attached to substance use disorder and many people still mislead it and think it’s a moral issue rather than an illness, Vick said.

The underlying problem

For two decades, Vick said he used methamphetamine, among other substances, before ending up in federal prison.

He is now recovering and running the program where Gale came for treatment in 2019.

She said how we think about recovery can be the difference between someone successfully getting help or giving up.

I think we need to put aside some of our old thoughts, old-school moral beliefs, the fact that it’s their fault, he said.

Vick said the general public doesn’t always appreciate that substance use is usually just a symptom of much deeper trauma.

It’s like treating a broken arm with painkillers without fixing the broken bone, she said.

We haven’t really addressed the underlying issue, Vick said. All we did was cure the symptom.

When substance abuse isn’t involved, studies have shown that Americans are largely defying old stigmas about our mental health and getting treatment for conditions like depression and anxiety.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that 19.2 percent of adults received mental health care in 2019. In 2020, that number rose to 20.3 percent, the data shows.

But when those conditions lead to drugs and alcohol, Vick said Americans tend not to have as much empathy for those seeking treatment.

Well, we’ve been doing this for years with substance use disorder, treat it, treat it, treat it and we were actually missing depression, anxiety, trauma, she said.

Cut the stigmas

Dr. Roopa Sethi, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Kansas Medical Center, said the stigmas are slowly diminishing.

He said experts and advocates are working hard to create a culture of understanding, especially when it comes to how society talks about substance use disorder.

Words create powerful images, so addict, addict, I have to go, Sethi said. People who use drugs, people with substance use disorders, two separate populations. Not everyone who uses drugs has a clinical disorder.

But old thoughts about using drugs as a sign of moral failure make it a challenge.

Addiction is normal and we need to start treating it as such because the more we continue to treat it as this anomaly, the more it stigmatizes individuals, she said.

Sethi said students at KU medical school are getting training today on treating people with substance use disorder that doctors of his generation never had.

If you change the way you handle your problems or deal with some kind of stress, you may not go back to using because you changed your thought process, she said.

Gale said he’s still working on that thought process to this day.

Once I’ve checked my mental health, I don’t feel like going out and using anything, she said. Drinking? What’s the point? I feel great.

For more information about recovery treatment in your area, visit the Missouri Department of Mental Healths website or the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services website.

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