Newsletter February 2022

Substance Use Disorder Providers and Operations

Dr. Trisha Thrush, PhD, LMSW
Director of SUD Services and Operations

Addressing Stigma with First Responders

Stigma is a pervasive and toxic challenge for those who struggle with mental illness and substance use disorders.
Even the word stigma has its roots in negative connotations (in ancient Greece, a stigma was a brand to mark
slaves or criminals).

While mental illness is not framed any more (at least in the mainstream) as divine judgment for sin or possession
by demons, attitudes remain that folks struggling with depression or anxiety should “just get it together” and pull
themselves up by their bootstraps. In the case of people struggling with a substance use disorder (SUD), judgment
that implies weak moral character persists in American society. Greater understanding of the neuro-science of
addiction has helped reframe SUDs for those in the behavioral health field, but the general public is often less
forgiving. Stigma persists even within the helping professions: first responders for example.

To address this in one Region 5 community, Peer360, a MSHN-contracted community recovery organization is
working with the Saginaw Police Department and Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) at MMRs (Mobile
Medical Response) to offer training sessions focused on the vulnerable populations they often encounter,
individuals who have overdosed for example or who are intoxicated with alcohol or under the influence of other
substances. Law enforcement and EMTs have hard jobs and are themselves often at significant personal risk to
their own safety. And for police in particular, the criminalization of drugs since the 1970s has framed a medical
crisis as a law-and-order issue, as one with good guys and bad guys. Fortunately, that tide has shifted in recent
years, but attitudes and perceptions can be entrenched.

As the people who are often first on the scene with a person under the influence of substances, it’s helpful for first
responders to have an understanding of the people they encounter and to develop the same compassion for a
person in crisis with an SUD as they bring to a person who may have just had a heart attack or taken a fall on the
ice. Peer 360 employs peers who are in recovery and have lived experience of struggles with a SUD. As they
share their journeys to recovery, police and EMT staff get to see—perhaps for the first time—the humanity of
people with a SUD who they might have viewed previously through the distorted lens of unconscious bias rooted in

Peer 360 Director, Ricardo Bowden, reports that members of law enforcement and MMR personnel have engaged
fully in these conversations, and they’ve conveyed heartfelt appreciation to hear from people with lived experience,
to see the hope in their examples of recovery, and to hear that many people in recovery often credit their legal
involvements and emergency response interactions as the “jump start” they needed to start their journey to
recovery and wellness. Police and EMTs “listen with open ears and open hearts” about the reality of SUD as a brain
disease which, like any medical condition, deserves compassion without judgment and understanding beyond

Contact Trisha with questions, comments or concerns related to the above and/or MSHN SUD Treatment and Prevention at