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GOP Candidate Carly Fiorina Puts a Human Face on the Addiction Epidemic

David Hunter, MA.Ed, LPC

Medically reviewed by

David Hunter, MA.Ed, LPC

April 9, 2019

A Familiar Loss:

The two police officers stood awkwardly in our living room . . . They asked us to sit down. Frank collapsed in a chair. I sat on the carpet next to him, my arms wrapped around his knees. The police officers said our daughter was dead, three thousand miles away . . . she was thirty-four years old.

Virtually every minute of every day . . . Frank and I wondered what signs we had missed, what we could have done differently to help Lori overcome her demons. It is the torture of second-guessing that every parent who has lost a child to addiction goes through.

-Republican Presidential Candidate Carly Fiorina, writing about the death of her step-daughter Lori Ann Fiorina, in the book “Rising to the Challenge

Carly Fiorina

Presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina carries a heartbreak that’s increasingly familiar in American life: losing a loved one to addiction.

During an emotional moment at the recent Republican presidential debate, Fiorina shared her family’s painful journey and illuminated the nation’s epidemic of drug and alcohol abuse.

“I very much hope that I am the only person on this stage who can say this, but I know there are millions of Americans out there who will say the same thing: My husband, Frank, and I buried a child to drug addiction,”

Fiorina said. Her step-daughter, Lori Ann Fiorina, whom the candidate had known and raised since Lori was six years old, died after years of battling alcohol, bulimia, and prescription drug abuse.

Fiorina has called for de-criminalizing drug addiction and investing more in treatment and recovery programs. Her personal revelation puts a real face on this public health crisis, experts say, and may reduce the deep stigma that surrounds addiction.

“Ms. Fiorina took a valuable step forward for the country in talking about her family’s experience. We need similar leadership from other prominent individuals,” says Tom Horvath, Ph.D., President of SMART Recovery,® the leading self-help alternative to 12-step recovery programs.

“In reality, we know that drug addiction can touch anyone — our children, neighbors, grandparents, mothers, people from all walks of life,” Says Patty McCarthy Metcalf, Executive Director of Faces & Voices of Recovery, a national advocacy movement.

“I think that it is critical to put more of a human face on the struggles with drug addiction.”

An estimated 23.2 million Americans are battling drug and alcohol addiction, but only about 10 percent get the treatment they need, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

Every day in the United States, approximately 114 people die from drug overdoses, and 61 of those deaths (53%) are due to prescription medications, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The majority of deaths involve opioid pain relievers such as oxycodone (Percocet, OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin) and methadone.

It’s a growing epidemic, with a 146% increase in fatal drug overdoses between 1999 and 2012, the CDC notes. Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of injury death in America – responsible for more deaths among people ages 25-64 than motor vehicle accidents.

New research also suggests that the abuse of prescription opioids is leading to a heroin resurgence in America (since heroin is typically a cheaper, more accessible opioid).

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Reducing the Stigma of Addiction

One reason more people don’t seek treatment, experts say, is fear of the stigma and negative perceptions that still surround addiction.

“Our research suggests that among the American public, levels of stigma are extremely high toward people with addiction – not just addiction to illicit drugs like heroin, but also to prescription pain medications,” says Dr. Colleen L. Barry, associate professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at Johns Hopkins University.

“That high level of stigma is really damaging in terms of getting people the treatment they need to get well,” Barry says. “They may blame themselves and also potentially get a lot less support from those around them.”

Barry led a recent study which surveyed 709 Americans about their opinions toward drug addiction or mental illness (Discrimination, Treatment Effectiveness and Policy: Public Views About Drug Addiction and Mental Illness, published October 2014 in the journal Psychiatric Services).

According to the survey results, 64 percent of respondents said companies should be able to deny employment to people with a drug addiction (only 25 percent of respondents said people with a mental illness should be denied employment).

In addition, 43 percent said people with a drug addiction should be denied health insurance benefits and only 22 percent said they would be willing to work closely on a job with a person with drug addiction (62% said they would be willing to work closely with someone who had a mental illness).

“Our research suggests that the public tends to think about addiction as a moral failing as opposed to a chronic medical condition that can be responsive to treatment,” Barry says.

She adds that widespread education about effective treatment and the many recovery success stories will be instrumental in changing public attitudes.

“That’s why what Carly Fiorina did, in such a public way, was so important,” Barry says. “She humanizes the personal experience of having a family member who is struggling with addiction. It’s not just a strung-out heroin addict on the street. It’s individuals who come from all walks of life, from good families who have supportive, loving parents.”

Horvath of SMART Recovery® says we need to recognize that craving is a problem that all people share.

“Addictive behavior (acting on craving) is universal in human beings,” he says. “How many people have never eaten too much, done something sexual they later regretted or attempted to get the attention of others in a way they latter regretted?” Horvath asks. “Many also act on substance cravings to their detriment, and possibly their death. Ironically, even though many will not consider overeating or unhealthy eating “addictive,” eating problems recently surpassed tobacco use as a cause of death.”

Horvath notes that more people would engage in efforts to end problem addictive behaviors when we acknowledge that craving is universal – and stop labeling and stigmatizing others.

“As it stands, agreeing to enter “recovery” means one agrees to be labeled an “addict” or “alcoholic.” Such labeling is upsetting to most, and a reason to postpone making valuable changes,” Horvath says. “The “in-group, out-group” distinction is fundamental to human life. It’s time to recognize we are all in this group.”

American Psychiatric Association Publishing - Stigma, Discrimination, Treatment Effectiveness, and Policy: Public Views About Drug Addiction and Mental Illness

Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health - Colleen L. Barry, PhD

LinkedIn Profile - Patty McCarthy Metcalf

Practical Recovery - Reviews of Sex, Drugs, Gambling and Chocolate - Rising to the Challenge: My Leadership Journey

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