Commentary #114: Viewpoints on Health – A Conversation with David Sheff

David Sheff, right, and his son, Nic. Image Credit: The New York Times

I had the opportunity to participate in a live-stream with the James Madison University (JMU) College of Health and Behavioral Studies and Mr. David Sheff, author of Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction and the new book, Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedy. This was presented in collaboration with Sentara Healthcare, and I learned about this opportunity as a Sentara employee. It was open to everyone, and was presented through Facebook and YouTube.

The structure of the event was a conversation between one of the JMU staff members and David Sheff. Before it started, the JMU staff members commented that “Sheff will share about his family’s experience with addiction. He will also report on findings from the years he spent investigating the disease of addiction and America’s drug problem.”


With David, his family’s experience with addiction was with his son, Nic. He was plagued with anxiety and depression. He was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder. However, Nic’s first experience with drugs was marijuana at age 11.

Sheff emphasized that parents can’t do it all. They aren’t their child’s social worker, psychologist, counselor, etc. The sooner that parents intervene, the better.

One topic that came up was “tough love,” Sheff and his wife did not go that route with Nic. Sometimes, it’s successful, but a lot of times, it’s not successful.

Family also sometimes adds to the problem.

One of the best things that parents can do is ask for help, whether that be from a counselor, coach, teacher, or doctor. There are a lot of support groups online, too.


What is Addiction?

“Addiction is the only disease that lets our family members hit rock bottom.”

Addiction is a health problem, not a problem of morals. It’s not bad behavior, either.

It’s a brain disease. We don’t want people to get worse.

Sheff said, “I didn’t know rock bottom had a basement.”

Using the term “bottom” is dangerous.

There are alternatives that work.

For healthcare providers – People don’t want to be addicted. We need more people to be trained to recognize the warning signs. And it’s not just a need for healthcare providers. So many others should be trained as well – Coaches, clergy, teachers, counselors, parents, guardians, and more.


How to Help or Get Help

Early warning signs include isolation, sadness, depression.

Don’t talk to your child or children – LISTEN to them.

There’s also a great, significant need for psychological testing in the substance abuse treatment system. For Nic, he had not had any psychological testing in the 10 years that he’d been in treatment, and that was years ago. After he had the proper psychological testing, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and, more importantly, he hasn’t relapsed since then.

In terms of a healthcare system that treats disease, there simply aren’t enough providers.

“Diseases of despair”

There was a study conducted of pediatricians not too long ago. Nearly 70 percent of them couldn’t recognize a drug problem in a child.

In 2020, 80,000 people died from drug overdose.

Sharp increase: Isolation from lockdown. Also, drugs have normally/usually been social gatherings. Because of the isolation, no one was with them to call 911.

Money has been diverted form support programs to help with COVID-19.

Pharmacological: Brain disease, chemical issues.

Opioid addiction: Meds lower cravings.

Methadone and suboxone – These drugs help people function! It’s almost equivalent to cancer drugs.

Replace shame and guilty with knowledge and hope.

Irresponsible prescribing needs to stop. Educating professionals needs to increase. Not leaving people alone.

Medications must be monitored.

Teenagers: Opioids must commonly found / used in home medicine cabinets.

Identify stressors: It takes a village, support for everyone

Mental illnesses often go undiagnosed or not properly diagnosed, sometimes for years or decades.

Societal problems: No money, no food – Those things, and others, lead to violence. Also consider unemployment and abuse.

Be relentless: Make a million phone calls if you have to.

There have been successful Nurse-Family Partnerships, where a nurse is in consistent contact and communication with a family, offering support and medical assistance.

Teenage pregnancy is a significant factor, too.

A team that works together can help: Write resume, job interviews, proper nutrition, staying at a job.

Support includes making appointments, going to counseling sessions.

There needs to be an increase in and acceptance of harm reduction programs, community resources, needle exchanges.

There’s a JMU graduate who works for a needle exchange program in Tacoma, Washington.


I have not yet read either of Sheff’s books, but I plan to. See the links below for more information.


Resources

FRONTLINE | Chasing Heroin (2016) – Exploring what happens when addiction is treated like a public health issue, not a crime.

At George Floyd’s Treatment Center, Recovering Clients See Racism in Addiction Assumptions | FRONTLINE (2021)

Syringe Services Programs (SSPs) FAQs | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Methadone | MedlinePlus

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)

What is Addiction? | American Psychiatric Association

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)


Until the next headline, Laura Beth 🙂

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