Addressing the Biggest Issues in the Opiate Epidemic – Highlights from Our Exec Chair Chris Christie’s Keynote Address at “Moments of Change”Anna Ciulla
This year’s “Moments of Change” conference, co-hosted by Beach House Center for Recovery, kicked off with a rousing call to end today’s opiate epidemic, from none other than our very own Executive Chairman Chris Christie. The 55th governor of New Jersey, who was formally introduced by our founder and CEO Glenn Cohen, made his remarks to a large national audience of experts and lay members from the treatment and recovery community (from Florida and around the country). They filled a large conference hall to standing room only to hear a heartfelt call to action with next steps and policy recommendations, in response to America’s modern-day plague of addiction and overdose.
What follow are a few key highlights from Governor Christie’s opening address, which received a standing ovation. You can also catch the inspiring full video, which we recommend— and, explore other highlights in photos from the conference.
The Most Important Issue in Today’s Addiction Epidemic
Gov. Christie began his talk by addressing “the most important issue we have to deal with in a crisis that has dozens and dozens of issues…”— namely, the “stigma” of addiction, which Gov. Christie said played a part in his own experience of losing a very close friend to addiction.
The friend was someone who by all outward appearances seemed to have “every measure of success in life” and who “was the annoying one” in a small group of four friends who went through law school together:
- “He was on the law review, and got the best grades and clerkships.”
- “He married a great-looking woman who was a physician.”
- “He became a partner in his law firm before any of us.”
- “He was great looking and in amazing shape.”
“This was a guy to hate,” Gov. Christie joked, going on to describe the closeness of their relationship over the years.
But things took a dark turn when his friend experienced a traumatic back injury and went to the doctor asking for pain medication. The doctor gave him Percocet….
In Gov. Christie’s words: “Little did we know that my friend would begin an odyssey over the next 10 years which led me to be part of an intervention with his family. He went through five different stints of treatment. He had every measure of success in life, and over that 10 years he lost his license to practice law, was fired from his firm, lost his driver’s license, his wife divorced him, the court prevented him from seeing his children, lost all his money … And then the day came when we got the call that they had found him in a cheap motel room in West Orange, New Jersey, dead at 52 years old with an empty bottle of Percocet and an empty bottle of vodka.”
When Gov. Christie attended his friend’s funeral, it was there, he recalled, that he vowed to do more to address addiction in this country, “because the stigma that is attached to this disease is the #1 problem— more than any other issue we face. The stigma is the problem. [My friend] was an addict for two-and-a-half years and his wife never told us … We’d grown up together and were the dearest of friends. She didn’t tell us because she was ashamed and thought it reflected on her. That’s what happens every day in this country. People are afraid to ask for help because they don’t want to be labeled an addict, because our society tells us all the time that this is a personal choice with consequences.”
Addressing the Stigma of Addiction
Recalling another family’s heartbreaking loss of a 21-year-old son to overdose, Gov. Christie said, “Stigma is so strong that we hide and the longer we hide, the higher the death toll goes up … The first thing we need to do is to work every day to remove the stigma, to talk about it.”
That was why, during his governorship in New Jersey, Gov. Christie said he launched a broad media campaign across the state featuring people in recovery. The goal, he said, was to dismantle stigma by:
- showing that addiction can happen to anyone;
- and that there is hope of recovery for those who ask for help.
Transferable Lessons from the AIDS Crisis
Gov. Christie drew parallels between today’s addiction crisis and the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980’s. What made the biggest difference in addressing that public health crisis, he said, was the de-stigmatization that took place when people like Magic Johnson and Ryan White—people who did not fit the so-called gay plague stereotype—came forward saying they were HIV-positive.
The takeaway, according to Gov. Christie: “We must let people know that addiction is a disease just like heart disease, diabetes, cancer and AIDS, and it can be treated and should be treated. We need to treat it and those who have it with compassion, understanding and the best that science can offer.”
Other Successful Government-Led Interventions to End the Opiate Epidemic
While addressing the stigma of addiction was a big theme, Gov. Christie also mentioned other government and community-led initiatives that are working to relieve the opiate epidemic. Discover what’s working in the fight against addiction and overdose.
Do you agree with Gov. Christie that stigma is “the most important issue we have to deal with” in today’s addiction epidemic? Why or why not? Share your thoughts with the rest of us!