The United States is in the throes of an opioid epidemic, but despite the awareness of the problem – lawsuits against drug manufacturers and an ever-rising number of casualties, stigma still surrounds addiction. Stigma, however, is ultimately unhelpful in properly addressing the national crisis, according to Anita Pindiur, executive director of the recovery non-profit the Way Back Inn.
“We wouldn’t necessarily protest or take away medical treatment from people who need anything like, say, allergy medicine or an epi pen, and yet we do that for substance abuse disorders,” said Pindiur. “We need to check our biases at the door.”
More than 106,000 persons in the U.S. died from drug overdoses in 2021 and of that number, 80,411 deaths were caused by opioids, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Opioid-related fatalities have been consistently rising in the U.S. since the 1990s and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports the drug overdose situation continues to worsen.
Despite the tragic trends, the atmosphere was entirely joyful May 24 at the Way Back Inn’s Grateful House, 412 Wesley Ave. in Oak Park. Police officers, recovery advocates and local officials gathered in the backyard of the rehab center to celebrate the ribbon cutting of an opioid mobile outreach vehicle.
Called the “Stigma Crusher,” the van is an outreach program by Live4Lali, a non-profit working to prevent substance abuse disorders while reducing societal shame surrounding them and minimizing the overall health, legal and social impacts of such addictions.
The van will be stationed every Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the alley behind the Grateful House. The van will then move to the Metra station on South Boulevard near Harlem Avenue. Anyone struggling or who knows someone struggling with addiction can visit the van, which is stocked with everything from unused hypodermic needles and fentanyl testing strips to fresh fruit, personal care items and pamphlets for different recovery pathways.
The vehicle is also stocked with Narcan, an opioid overdose reversal medication which has been labeled a miracle drug. In overdoses, the life-saving solution is administered by bystanders to those in the grips of an overdose, restoring breathing within two or three minutes. Narcan also has no adverse effect on people not suffering from an overdose, so if it is administered by mistake, it causes no harm to that individual. The packaged doses of the medicine, which is now available over the counter, were given out to attendees, who were advised to carry it with them always.
“It’s a good safety precaution,” said Pindiur.
The partnership with Live4Lali is part of a community-wide initiative born from a grassroots movement that became known as the opioid taskforce. Pindiur co-chairs the taskforce with Rickey Schwartz, community liaison for Riveredge Hospital, and with stakeholders and community leaders serving as members. The taskforce falls under the umbrella of the Oak Park Township’s Positive Youth Development work group, led by Kelly O’Connor, the township’s prevention service manager. Pindiur, Schwartz and O’Connor gathered around Oak Park Village President Vicki Scaman as she cut the purple ribbon on the outreach vehicle; purple is the color of the international recovery movement.
“I considered it an honor to be asked to cut the ribbon,” said Scaman.
Scaman has been involved with substance abuse and recovery work since 2010. She previously held O’Connor’s position prior to becoming village clerk, the position she held before being elected village president in 2021.
Schwartz told Wednesday Journal the taskforce is moving forward with raising awareness for the opioid crisis, from which he said people are dying every day. Partnerships with such organizations as Live4Lali and its Stigma Crusher are important in raising that awareness.
“Lives will be saved,” said Schwartz, of the mobile outreach vehicle.
For those further along in their recovery journey, the van will be staffed with a minimum of two peer recovery support specialists and Live4Lali employees will be available to help identify available treatment options. The van can even provide transportation to recovery centers.
Keeping the van stocked with syringes and other paraphernalia used for drug consumption is not to encourage drug use; it is meant to encourage safe drug use among those not yet in recovery. Access to clean needles can reduce the risk of contracting HIV or viral hepatitis. Programs that provide access to sterile injection equipment are associated with an approximate 50% decrease in HIV and hepatitis C diagnoses, according to the CDC.
It is also a falsity that access to such equipment makes people want to use drugs.
“I drive around with supplies in my car all the time and I’ve never been tempted or encouraged to use a needle,” said Laura Fry, Live4Lali executive director.
The harmful belief that encouraging safe use is tantamount to encouraging use feeds into the stigma that the opioid taskforce and Live4Lali are working to eradicate. The notion those who use or are addicted to drugs are inherently bad or weak is also detrimental to recovery. Fry herself is in recovery.
“I was one of those people on the street using drugs,” she said. “We do recover. We just need to be loved and respected.”