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OpEd: Bush, Christie, Fiorina, Kasich: 2016 candidates can change the way we talk about addiction

January 23, 2016

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The recent presidential candidate forum on addiction in New Hampshire can help change the way we talk about addiction, long after the election. At the forum Governors Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and CEO Carly Fiorina shared personal stories that can help tear down the old stigmas of the “junkie” and the "addict" and allow us to effectively address this growing epidemic that touches almost every American.

When presidential candidates share their own stories of family and friends battling addiction, it makes it safer for all of us to do the same. If a governor, a CEO, a presidential candidate has family battling addiction, it may feel safer to bring our own families’ struggles with substance abuse out from the shadows. 

As Governor Christie explained during the New Hampshire Forum on Addiction, “You don’t go to a neighborhood dinner party and say, “Hey, my daughter is addicted to heroin. What’s new with you? But if she had cancer you would tell them.”

He’s right. When a family struggles with addiction, where are the offers for help, the casserole dishes, the apple pies, note cards and community support you find when other challenges and tragedies strike our neighbors?

I believe this month’s forum can be part of a shift that reinforces that we all are affected by addiction in some way. With 22.7 million people in need of treatment and another 23 million in recovery, too many of our families are touched by the heartbreak of addiction.

As Governor John Kasich remarked, “This disease knows no bounds, knows no income, knows no neighborhood, it's everywhere.”

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Governor Jeb Bush opened up about his daughter’s struggle with prescription drugs and remarked on the need to address stigma. “We need to eliminate the stigma and the barriers so more and more people get engaged with this. Where they are not embarrassed to say I have an illness and I’m on the road to recovery.”

Carly Fiorina's stepdaughter died of a drug overdose in 2009. She shared her family’s painful story and the need to better treat addiction. “Unfortunately, too many of the men and women I have met on the campaign trail have experienced tragedies like ours. This is a battle that we must fight. There are things that we can and must do,” she said.

Stigma has contributed to the worsening epidemic we are seeing nationwide, particularly with heroin and prescription drugs. Shame drives this pervasive disease into the shadows where individuals and families have less support, less treatment, less resources and a whole lot of isolation.

Imagine if it were shameful to have cancer or asthma in America. Or, disgraceful to seek chemotherapy. Stigma is a dark environment that makes it hard for us to address the disease. New CDC data tells us that 129 people are dying of drug overdoses in our country each day. That’s equivalent to two commuter plane crashes every day for an entire year. If you factor in alcohol-related deaths, that shoots up to over 300 needless deaths every day.

Let’s all continue the honest conversation that the presidential candidates have started, in order to bring addiction – how our family and friends have been affected, and our own personal struggles – out into the light to fight this epidemic.

Authors Note:  The Addiction Policy Forum invited all presidential candidates to the New Hampshire forum and eight were represented. In addition to the candidates mentioned, Governor Jim Gilmore and surrogates for Secretary Hillary Clinton and Governor Martin O’Malley were in attendance. We will continue to press the other candidates to weigh in on these issues.

Jessica Nickel is the executive director of The Addiction Policy Forum. She previously served as the Director of Government Affairs for the Council of State Governments Justice Center (CSG). During her tenure, she elevated the national priorities of CSG, the nation's only organization serving all three branches of state government, and represented CSG before Congress and the Executive Branch.



Jessica Hulsey Nickel

Jessica began working in prevention at 15 years old through an anti-drug coalition in southern California. The next chapters included an appointment by President Bill Clinton to serve on the Drug-Free Communities Commission, serving as a legislative aid in the U.S. House of Representatives, and work to pass and fund the Second Chance Act to help individuals returning home from prison and jail. In 2015, Jessica founded the Addiction Policy Forum to help families and patients struggling with the disease of addiction. Frustrated by the lack of progress in improving outcomes for those individuals and families struggling, she started the nonprofit with $13,000 from her own savings account and long hours at the dining room table. Read more about Jessica Hulsey Nickel.