Stigma, fear prevent N. Va. adults from seeking addiction treatment

People suffering from a drug addiction are too scared to seek treatment, according to a recent survey of Northern Virginia adults launched by the Act on Addiction awareness campaign.

The survey shows that three in 10 local adults either suffer from addiction or know someone who suffers from one. But 46% say they would be afraid to seek care for substance use disorder or addiction out of fear of being judged.

“People stated a fear of their family finding out or a fear of other employees or their employer finding out and even their friends finding out,” said Rick Leichtweis, executive director for the Inova Kellar Center, which provides behavioral health services for children, adolescents and their families.

The survey findings, he said, are a surprise and very concerning.

“So it’s very clear that where we’re not making a lot of headway is with stigma, and really driving the anti-stigma message around substance use disorder throughout the community,” he said.

The Act on Addiction campaign was created with donations to the Inova Health Foundation to provide resources to combat addiction and to drive a community dialogue around the issue.

The Hitt family contributed $16 million.

“Each number in these statistics represent the life of an individual, family member, neighbor and friend in our community,” said Brett Hitt, co-chairman of Falls Church-based HITT Contracting, in a statement.

“Our family is proud to join Inova and the Act on Addiction campaign in this mission because no one should feel they need to suffer in silence.”

Leichtweis has advice for people who are concerned about a loved one who might be abusing deadly opioids.

Find out a little bit about the drug or issue. Think about what you want to say, perhaps write down some thoughts, and approach the conversation from an empathetic place.

“Be open. Don’t be judgmental. It’s really a conversation,” Leichtweis said.

You might say, for instance: “Is there something that we need to talk about? I’m concerned that your behavior is telling me that you might be dealing with or struggling with alcohol use.”

Or: “I’ve have noticed that you’re high a lot. Can we talk about that?”

“You’re providing a safe space for someone to share that information,” Leichtweis said. “And most importantly, you’re not going to judge them. You also are not necessarily going to be able to change them.

“All you can do is open the door to the conversation. Let them know that unconditionally, they can talk with you, and that you will unconditionally support them.”

He also has advice for people who might be struggling about whether to reach out for help.

“The most important thing for anyone to remember who’s dealing with any type of addiction is that there is help, and you’re not alone,” Leichtweis said.

Some people live in secrecy about their addictions. They might feel isolated and alone, and they might not realize they’re a victim of a crisis that community resources can help address.

“Reach out, talk to somebody,” he said. “It’s frightening, I’m sure. It’s uncomfortable, I’m certain. But there is protection, there’s legal protection for you.

“There’s also emotional protection available to you. There are people who can support you and we want to support you,” Leichtweis said. “It’s just that first step, taking that first step, having that first conversation, reaching out to that first person that understands, that can be empathic to your struggles and to your pain. But we are here, and there is hope.”

Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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