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Faces of Opioids: Nurturing Empathy from Stigma

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Faces of Opioids: Nurturing Empathy from Stigma

There’s just something about the disease addiction that feels… dirty to a lot of people. Like it’s something you should be ashamed of to understand, or God forbid, to experience firsthand. To those whose lives have never been brushed by its devastation, substance abuse is steeped in stigma. Yet the opiate epidemic continues to slowly seep into our homes. An innocuous orange bottle here, a hidden fentanyl syringe there… opiates claim our loved ones and turn them into strangers we don’t recognize. Overdose often snuffs out their tragically short lives, and loved ones are left tangled and confused in the wake of loss. But for this new age problem arrives a new age solution. Faces of Opioids, a public group currently 28,000+ members strong, shines a light on the elephant in the room… only to reveal that elephant is actually your own son, his best friend, your next door neighbor, plus a dozen other people you recognize but never knew struggled with opiate dependence. And out of all these faces, none of them really seem to strike you as addicts. They’re just… normal people.

Faces of Opioids
Suddenly, we’re faced with not only the magnitude of the epidemic, but the realization that it’s not just someone else’s problem anymore.

What is Faces of Opioids?

This public Facebook group was founded on June 11, 2017, by Melissa Dunford. As a former grant writer for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), Melissa brings years of group advocacy experience to the table. Faces of Opioids has its roots in a personal, but all too common, opiate overdose that claimed the life of one of Melissa’s longtime friends. Although this friend is not the only loved one in Melissa’s affected by opiate addiction, the circumstances around the tragedy speak directly the group’s purpose.

This friend, we’ll call her Katherine, worked in logistics for a law enforcement office. Throughout her twenties and early thirties, Katherine was relatively straight-edged and never struggled with drugs. Sure, she partied a little in college, but who doesn’t? However, when a major surgery in her mid-thirties called for opiate pain medication, Katherine was unwittingly roped into what we now understand to be a crisis-level problem. Although the medication was necessary for the temporary post-surgery pain, the narcotic effects of these pills coaxed Katherine into a long-term drug habit that, of course, exceeded medical necessity. The ensuing details of years-long bouts of being clean, then relapse, all leading to overdose are all too familiar.

There are more details to Katherine’s story, as well as the countless other overdose tragedies that snuff out lives before their time. But the one common denominator is the same: struggling with opiate addiction is akin to playing with fire, and we are not preparing young adults or their families to handle the problem. Instead, the death toll rises, and the stigma surrounding addiction keeps people from getting the help they need. That’s what Faces of Opioids is all about. The group gathers these stories, and it gives faces to the opiate overdose victims and surviving recovery warriors.

Meet the Faces of Opioids

Each photo is color-coded with a border that indicates whether the person has passed on from complications of their addiction (purple), or if they’re in recovery (teal). Individually, these portraits humanize the victims and recovery warriors. Synergized into a massive Wall of Faces, and they become an indicator of how serious this epidemic has become.

Purple Border

Gone But Not Forgotten

Faces of Opioids - Purple Border Indicates Person has Passed Away

Jordan Phillips

11/12/1991 – 2/6/2017

Georgia, United States

Teal Border

Recovery Warrior

Faces of Opioids - Teal Border Indicates Person is in Recovery

Cameron Sprenger

In Recovery 3/5/2017

Colorado, United States

Wall of Faces Count

(March 19, 2018)

Faces of Opioids - Wall of Faces

Gone but Not Forgotten: 509
Recovery Warriors: 210
TOTAL: 719

See Today’s Count

Wall of Faces: Public Sharing Nurtures Empathy

A distinguishing feature of the group is its public sharing status. In terms of Facebook, “public sharing” means that posts, comments, and other information shared with the group can be seen by non-members, i.e. family and friends. Private opiate addiction support groups are actually fairly common on Facebook; however, private sharing does little to impact the problem of addiction stigma or emotional isolation. Many loved ones hesitate to share such private details on a public stage. And understandably so: the stigma surrounding addiction causes many to fear repercussions. What if an employer sees? What if our family members notice and start treating us differently, or avoiding us altogether?

Clearly, that stigma-induced fear affects the way we reach out and ask for help. Faces of Opioids is effective because it taps into a deeply-rooted human instinct to sympathize with people we identify with.

“We like people who are similar to us. This fact seems to hold true whether the similarity is in the area of opinions, personality traits, background, or life-style.”  Robert B. Cialdini, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

 Faces of Opioids Provides Resources for Families & People at Risk

As a group, Faces of Opioids serves a much wider breadth of purpose than simply spreading awareness. It also acts as a resource network for families and people at risk of opiate dependence.

Substance abuse is a complex disease that poses multi-faceted complications for people suffering. Those facets range from severity of dependence, history of relapse, sub-ideal living circumstances, readiness to change, and others that become overwhelming quickly. Victims and their families often feel paralyzed by the confusion, which is only worsened by prevailing stigma and embarrassment. For those who aren’t ready to share their stories firsthand, the group constantly publishes stories that people can identify with. Faces of Opioids also provides on-demand resources for these struggling individuals, as well as an outlet to ask questions and share experiences:

We encourage you to join or follow the Faces of Opioids group. Especially if your life has been affected by substance abuse, either directly or through a loved one. Support groups change lives, so check them out today:

Posted in Culture, Featured, For Loved Ones