(Screenshot via YouTube)
At community meetings about the opioid epidemic, Evan Figueroa-Vargas often hears grievances like “People are going to relapse again” or “They’re never going to amount to anything.”
These complaints are deep-rooted in stigma, but he believes he can help dispel them by taking the mic and sharing his story.
“I want to be that person to stand up to say that’s not necessarily the truth,” said Figueroa-Vargas, who is in long-term recovery and a program manager for the nonprofit Mental Health Partnerships (MHP). “Somebody gave me an opportunity with drug and alcohol treatment and as a result, I’m thriving in recovery. The quality of my life has improved drastically and … I am now doing positive things for the community.”
It launched in June and has collected a total of 150 stories from nearly every county in the state. Submissions are always being accepted online, said Glenn Sterner, the project’s coordinator and a criminal justice professor at Penn State University. The project is funded by the Independence Blue Cross Foundation with support from the state’s Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs.
(Foundation President Lorina Marshall-Blake said at this year’s Philanthropy Conference Greater Philadelphia that the org has a mission to fund strategies to end the opioid crisis.)
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Sterner said it he believes the initiative showcases the “breadth of depth of the opioid epidemic within our region.” All of Pennsylvania’s counties but two recorded drug-related overdose deaths in 2017, totaling 5,456. About 22 percent of those deaths were recorded in Philadelphia.
But “we needed to use more than statistics to talk about how this issue can affect quite literally anybody from any background at any time,” he said.
The project interviewed people with varying experiences — including active users, people in recovery, loved ones of people who are using or in recovery and those who lost people to opioids. Share Your Opioid Story also partnered with MHP to host storytelling events in Montgomery, Bucks, Delaware, Chester and Philadelphia counties during the summer.
Figueroa-Vargas, who is also supporting the development of Temple University-backed community newsroom Kensington Voice, encourages storytelling initiatives like Sterner’s to prioritize the diversity of factors like race and language in addition to lived experience.
“We often see Caucasian faces for the front-cover, sensationalizing story,” he said. “It’s a suburban kid who was an all-star athlete and he experimented with drugs and now this is where they ended up at. This opioid crisis is a lot more complex than that” — and it’s why he shared his perspective, as a bilingual member of the Latino community, with the project.
Focusing projects on opioid use disorder alone can also isolate people using or in recovery from different substances, Figueroa-Vargas said. But he’ll support any project with “addiction at its core” if it will help reduce stigma.
Share Your Opioid Story intentionally interviewed people from all demographics in urban, rural and suburban settings to address opioid use disorder in a comprehensive manner, Sterner said. Plus, the project plans on releasing its first video story in Spanish in early 2019, and it’s developing educational materials in English and Spanish to distribute at future community meetings.
The project is also currently putting together a curriculum so it can be used across the country. Sterner believes sharing people’s stories is a solution to dispelling stigma anywhere.
The thought that at least one other person will hear his story and be inspired is what keeps Figueroa-Vargas focused as a public health advocate, he said.
“It might be somebody sitting out in the middle of Ohio, a mother who’s desperate about their child,” he said. “They might read my story, and I might give that mother halfway across the country some hope.”-30-
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