Steven L. Burton: Compassion for addicts will aid whole communities

By By Steven L. Burton

Every day, we see headlines that highlight the growing addiction epidemic in West Virginia. We read about overdoses, arrests and child neglect, all attributed to substance abuse.

It is killing our children, exhausting our emergency responders and destroying our future. These stories are predictably followed by water cooler conversations, social media rants and online comments that follow a common theme.

People ask why we are wasting money fixing these people, or why they can’t just be left to die.

As a lifelong West Virginian, I’m saddened by these reactions. We are known all over the country for our compassion and for the way we stick up for one another. Destroying one another has never made us better. When we unite, there is no stronger force on Earth.

I have watched as we have banded together to overcome floods, chemical leaks and other disasters. When we see families hurting, we raise them up. When we see children going without, we provide for them, and when our communities are under water and mud, we do not stop until every bit of dirt is gone and our communities restored.

Folks, if we are to win the battle against drug addiction, we are going to need the same response.

The stigma of substance abuse needs to be addressed. Can you imagine someone suffering a heart attack, and hearing onlookers say, “Just let him die. Maybe if he would have eaten better and exercised more, this wouldn’t have happened. Let him serve as a reminder to others.”

Of course, not.

Rather than judging those who have developed an addiction, why not serve as a beacon of hope and help?

Yes, we must hold everyone responsible for their actions, but we must also understand that, outside the bonds of their addiction, they are good people. They are our sisters and brothers. They are the ones we grew up with, our childhood best friends. We must remember in their bad times who they were in their good times.

I am privileged to be CEO of the company that operates the statewide substance abuse and behavioral health helpline, 1-844-HELP-4-WV. I see and hear recovery every day.

One of the greatest parts of developing this helpline has been working with, and even hiring, people who are in recovery. Yes, that often means giving second chances and understanding that past criminal convictions are not an automatic disqualification for employment.

We have call agents and recovery coaches who are motivated, dedicated, hard workers. They are the kind of people you would welcome as a neighbor. They have families who love them and children who depend on them. They hold down full-time jobs, are active in their communities and give us hope that treatment does work and recovery does happen.

These are folks who, at one time, may have been in some of these headlines and the center of all the negative comments. I promise you, if you spend five minutes talking to one of them, you’ll have a new perspective on addiction.

During Recovery Month in September, we celebrated and brought awareness to those who fight the disease of addiction every day and stay in recovery. We celebrated treatment programs, self-help groups and family members who have helped save the lives of those afflicted with this disease.

I challenge each of you to look at addiction differently. Even if you have never abused a single substance, it affects you ever day. It affects your community. It affects your children. It affects your future.

I challenge you to speak up the next time someone says addicts don’t need treatment, that they should be left to die. Chances are, you or someone you love will one day benefit from that type of compassion.

Steven L. Burton, a licensed clinical social worker, is CEO of First Choice Health Systems, which operates the HELP4WV program.

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