How do we see people experiencing a substance use disorder? How do we treat them or view their family members or loved ones?
When it comes to stigma, individuals with drug use disorders are among the most stigmatized of any psychiatric or behavioral disorder.
Through the Inspire Miami County project, recent Indiana University student Audrey White hopes to shed light on the stigmatization that affects so many Americans facing substance use and the role it plays in creating barriers to treatment and recovery.
"People think if a person keeps using, and you keep helping them, that they are weak, and their use is by choice," said White, a recent master of public health student at the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington. "Myself, I didn’t understand why someone receiving the help they needed would still go back to using. But I educated myself and learned that it is a disease and it takes a group of people working together to truly tackle this problem."
Based on off the popular Humans of New York series, the Inspire Miami County uses images as a way to reduce stigma around substance misuse. Hosted at the Peru City Hall, the project features 13 portraits of Miami County residents in active use or in recovery and family, friends and coworkers who know someone with a substance use disorder.
City of Peru officials first contacted Antonia Sawyer at the Indiana Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute. Sawyer reached out to her colleague Carrie Lawrence, assistant research scientist at IU who connected her with White. Together, along with the City of Peru and The United Way of Miami County, the project came to life and was revealed earlier this month at the city’s Second Saturday event.
White became interested in the health field after growing up not always having access to healthcare.
"Growing up, my family owned their own business, so we didn’t have access to healthcare for a while, so we weren’t seeing doctors," White said. "Going through that struggle, I learned how important access to healthcare is and I wanted to be a part of it, to really understand how the healthcare system works and how we can make it better."
When it comes to addiction, White’s family, like so many families in this country, have members who have struggled. Seeing addiction hit her own family, and the idea that there is still a lot that can be done to address this issue, pushed White toward a focus on substance use and healthcare. But stigma, she said, is still a huge barrier to addressing the problem, something she wants to address with her work and projects like Inspire Miami County.
Tish Soldi, clerk-treasurer for the City of Peru, knows the role stigma can play in the addictions issue. She was impressed, she said, with White’s commitment to the project and the idea of tackling stigma in such an empowering way.
"People do not really think it can happen to them," she said. "But addiction knows no boundaries, it affects everyone. That is why this anti-stigma campaign is so needed. The idea that addiction is the homeless guy walking down the street is wrong. It affects everyone."
Peru, like every community in the country, has been impacted by the addiction’s crisis, seeing deaths from drug poisonings continue to rise in the past decade. Officials in Peru are doing their part to address the problem, Soldi said, by hosting events like the Inspire Miami County and by providing resources and support to those impacted by the crisis.
"We want to make sure that if our residents, our citizens need some sort of help when it comes to issues like this, that they have a friend in city hall," Soldi said. "Every time I see a way, we can push us in the right direction, I'm going to go for it."