Doctor Says Dissolving ‘Stigma’ of Heroin Addiction Is First Step

Dr. Steven Kassels is trying to reshape the perception of addicts through his work and writing.

Westfield-based addiction specialist Dr. Steven Kassels wants to quash the notion that drug abuse issues across Massachusetts are someone else’s problem.

“Number one is to dissolve the stigma,” said Kassels, author of a new novel called Addiction on Trial: Tragedy in Downeast Maine. “I think the most important thing is to de-stigmatize and to set up programs—local programs—that educate and that make it easy for people to enter treatment and to stay in treatment.”

That’s part of the reason Kassels turned his attention from his duties as a physician to pen his work of fiction.

“I wrote Addiction on Trial: Tragedy in Downeast Maine, which could be ‘Addiction on Trial: Tragedy in Taunton, [or] ‘Addiction on Trial: Tragedy in…Vermont,’” Kassels said. “I wrote the book to demystify and de-stigmatize the disease of addiction. That it’s our neighbors who are addicted, it’s in our community.”

As a doctor who specializes in addiction therapies and drug abuse problems, Kassels recognizes the complexities of the heroin crisis in the area. After all, it’s hard to ignore considering Governor Deval Patrick recently declared the issue a public health crisis in the state.

Kassels said Patrick’s efforts to try to educate the public about the persistent drug problem hovering like a dark cloud over Massachusetts are commendable, but merely patching the walls with small chunks of funding dollars to protect residents from heroin’s aggressive storm front will only do so much.

He said the market is being flooded by heroin because people are having difficulty getting treatment for mental illnesses and are often self-medicating instead. Add to that the access to “pill mills”—situations where doctors were injudiciously prescribing opioid pills to patients—was suddenly turned off when officials realized the scope of the oxycodone problem in recent years. That move led to a quick transition from drugs like Oxycontin to heroin for many active users.

And perhaps one of the biggest caveats adding kindling to the budding flames is the idea that the heroin problem always seems to be a fire that was started in someone else’s backyard, according to Kassels. “[It’s] ‘not in my backyard.’ We don’t really have a problem in our yard. I don’t have any dandelions in my yard…they’re just in your yard—and any dandelions that are in my yard is because they blew over from your yard, so you need to treat it in your yard,” Kassels said, comparing the drug problem to a sort of blame-game between communities. “’I don’t have a problem, I don’t need treatment.’ And if every yard says that, then no yard gets treated for dandelions.”

Kassels said addicts are already in everybody’s town. “It’s not the next town over…that’s what all the deaths in Massachusetts tell us—I call it an equal opportunity disease. It has no socioeconomic boundaries.”

While a modest approach, Kassels believes his book is a starting point to drive a larger conversation about the epidemic, using everyday people as characters to show his audience that active addicts don’t strictly fit into most stereotypes of junkies. “I think part of the problem we have is that we don’t accept the addiction as a disease,” he said.

In a recent Boston Globe editorial, Kassels wrote about the “scourge” of the epidemic, and how—like his comparison using dandelions—it’s perpetrated by the misconception that bringing treatment centers to local communities will lead to increased crime and more problems with addicts—two things he strongly disputes. “If a person wants to use a drug, they’ll find it. And there’s so much money in it, we will never stop the drug pushers. So we’ve got to provide prevention, education, and treatment,” he said.

Most importantly, however, is avoiding placing blame on any one sole source. “We can blame the pharmaceuticals, and we can blame the doctor… blame, blame, blame. But that doesn’t get us anywhere,” he said. “Number one is to dissolve the stigma.”