United for Compassion Instead of Stigma

Parents and clinicians want to change the way we understand and respond to substance misuse.

united-compassionA growing movement among parents, policymakers and clinicians is working to change a system that it views as having historically stigmatized substance misuse and responded to it with punishment. Led by the grassroots organization Families for Sensible Drug Policy, a diverse group of stakeholders driven by “pain, compassion, love and family” recently gathered at The New School in New York. Their aim was to build momentum for their common goals: viewing substance misuse compassionately, eliminating its stigma and treating addiction as a complex clinical phenomenon as opposed to a behavior to be punished. Harm reduction therapist Eddie Einbinder was in attendance; here he weighs in on the event and connects the themes addressed to his own form of practice…Dr. Richard Juman

On the evening of September 24, 2015, a diverse audience was packed into an intimate lecture hall at The New School for Social Research in Manhattan. They were there to listen to experts from a variety of fields—from mothers to retired police majors to harm reduction psychologists—call for a new paradigm in the way that substance misuse is approached in the United States. The presentations were linked by a common theme—that the War on Drugs that has conditioned American society to view drug use as a crime, and punishment as the appropriate response had run its course. The focus was on improving the education, supervision and treatment of young adults dealing with issues of drug abuse and addiction and stopping the inadvertent, unfortunate traumas that are often incurred in our current system as a result of a problem with drugs. Dr. Jenifer Talley of The New School and assistant director at The Center for Optimal Living was at the podium to cheerfully greet the audience and introduce the moderator for the evening, Dr. Scott Kellogg, president of the Division of Addictions of the New York State Psychological Association.

The event was called “Bringing Communities Together: A New Vision for Helping Individuals and Families Impacted by Substance Use and Mental Health Issues,” and the driving force behind the evening was Families for Sensible Drug Policy, and that’s what made the event special for me: the event wasn’t just a panel discussion based in academia and policy but one also borne from pain, compassion, love and family.

Families for Sensible Drug Policy was recently founded as a non-profit organization by Carol Katz Beyer and addiction psychologist Barry Lessin, but it has already developed an incredible following and involvement that has grown beyond its community in Philadelphia to become international in scope.

Lessin discussed his gradual change in approach to addiction, eventually realizing the need for a change in his practice towards a harm reduction mentality after exposure to too many overdoses partially resulting from abstinence-only based treatment and a failing public health system. Carol Beyer spoke passionately of the counterproductive effect of punishing kids using drugs in high school—removing them from healthy school environments and extracurricular activities and instead coercing them into treatment where they had to label themselves as “addicts,” falling victim to further shame and stigmatization. She related the time when she was told by a drug treatment center that she should call the police to discipline her child. Beyer stated, “If we’re told that relapse is part of the process, then why do our children get in trouble for that part of the process?” Beyer ended by talking about the “school to prison pipeline,” claiming that “privatized prisons are making money off of our children, as a commodity.” Read more “the fix”…


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