As the city continues to fight the nationwide opioid epidemic, Worcester’s Health and Human Services Department is educating other city departments as well as the public about the science of addiction.

Dr. Matilde Castiel, the city’s health and human services commissioner, said training sessions were recently held for the Worcester Fire Department, where firefighters were asked whether they had a family member or friend who suffers from addiction, and almost everyone raised their hand.

“It affects everybody, yet those stereotypes about addiction were still there in that room,” Castiel said. “So how do we start changing those pieces? I truly believe it’s a community effort – like the whole stigma against HIV and how long it took to change that. People said, ‘It’s their disease, it’s not mine, it’s the gay disease.’ With addiction, ‘It’s the black disease, only blacks and Latinos.’ Now it happens to everybody.”

Deconstructing the stigma surrounding addiction and substance abuse means educating people about the biological basis for addiction, Castiel said.

Those who attend the training sessions, which are also being held at private businesses, the public library and local colleges, are taught about brain physiology and provided with studies that pinpoint the genetic basis for addiction. Castiel likens the problem of addiction to colon cancer or cardiac disease, other afflictions with a genetic link that require doctors to screen for them earlier in life.

Attendees also learn about how someone with addiction struggles to find and keep a job. Castiel said someone sent her a job ad for 10 janitorial positions to share with people in recovery, but the ad explicitly said that the employer did not want someone with any nicotine or drugs in their urine.

“Well, who is that?” she said. “I’m sure that’s somebody else, but that’s not someone in recovery. How do we start working so they understand the whole components of why people relapse, because of all the mechanisms that aren’t in place?”

Castiel brings someone who is in recovery to the trainings in order to put a human face on the problem. She said people with addiction will be more likely to ask for help when the stigma is broken down.

“The woman in recovery who did the Fire Department training with me, they had a power outage where she worked and they called the Fire Department,” she said. “The firefighters recognized her and they thanked her and said it was a great thing and they learned a lot from it. I think it had an impact and hope it continues to have an impact.”

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