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Psychiatrist: Addiction is a Disease, Not a Moral Failing

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The number of people dying of drug overdoses in Milwaukee County continues to be staggering. In the past seven weeks, 71 people have died of probable overdoses. One was the son of Milwaukee’s Medical Examiner, Dr. Brian Peterson.

Addiction crosses all boundaries - social, economic, race, gender, age - according to Dr. John Schneider, executive medical director of the Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division and an expert on addiction.

"Addiction is a biopsychosocial illness that impacts people, that they have a loss of control around using substances," he explains. "It's a biological illness. It is quite often activated by life stresses or life events that a person begins a maladaptive pattern of behavior to use substances to cope."

As more attention is brought to mental health and addiction issues, people are beginning to understand the complexity of the problem and how widespread it is. However, there still lies a big obstacle, Dr. Schnieder says.

"The challenge in trying to frame it solely as a choice is that people view it as lack of will power, a belief that people are just bad, that given other opportunities they would pick other outcomes," he says.

Historically, substance abuse has often been portrayed as a moral issue. Prohibition, the Temperance Movement and the War on Drugs only added to the stigma that "this is a moral failing and that we need to criminalize it" says Schneider.

Instead, he suggests that people suffering from the disease should be presented with options for treatment versus immediate sentencing.

"The fact the someone has an illness does not make them not culpable for choices they make," Schneider adds. "What it means is that they need treatment and they can deal with the consequences of the rest of those choices. People frame it as an 'either/or' as opposed to an 'and.'"

READ: Addiction: 'A Race Without a Finish Line'

While the drug Narcan has been successful in reversing the effects of overdose, currently only emergency personnel can administer it. The drug is administered intravenously, in a breathing tube or sprayed in someone's nose.

"Narcan...competes with the opiates you took for those same receptors. It knocks the opiate off the receptor and reverses the overdose," Dr. Schneider explains. He also notes that legislative efforts are underway at the state level (such as the Hope Legislation) to help make Narcan training available for community members. In the meantime, Dr. Schneider says that everyone from legislators to neighbors need to approach addiction in the same manner as we treat other illnesses. 

READ: In The Grip of Heroin Part 4: Lawmakers Grapple With The Problem

"If we approached this as if this was colon cancer, if this was heart disease, if these were individuals who needed a second bypass surgery - I don't even think we'd even question it other than to figure out what the rate is how do we come up with better treatments earlier for the people that have the more severe illness," he says.

Once the stigma and shame is lessened surrounding the issue, more people who are suffering will be able to seek out the help they need. "I think one of the biggest issues is people are afraid to get help because they don't think they're help-able...but treatment works. People can put their lives back together and there's lots of people and lots of services that are willing to help."  

The Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division will be hosting a joint event, An Evening with Patrick Kennedy, with the Medical Society of Milwaukee at the Italian Community Center in the 3rd Ward on Monday.

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Audrey is a producer, host and reporter for Lake Effect. She is involved with every aspect of the show — from conducting interviews, editing audio, posting web stories and mixing the show together.