How One NJ Cop is Busting the Stigma of Addiction

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Sep 16, 2016

How One NJ Cop is Busting the Stigma of Addiction

The lack of addiction education in our country at the moment is startling and with everyone quick to give their opinion on the controversial subject that addiction has been in the past year, it’s more important than ever before that we educate the general public on what addiction really is and what we can do to help. It’s something that Officer Thomas McWain of the West Deptford Township Police Department has decided to take into his own hands and he’s starting with our first responders.

On September 22, 2016, Officer McWain will be heading a training session with The Addictions Academy in New Jersey that will teach first responders how to access local resources and help more people struggling with the disease of addiction. We had a chance to catch up with him and ask him all about where he came up with the idea, how he plans to fight the stigma of addiction, and how we can all contribute.

Please see our press release for more information on the training session on September, 22nd 2016.

Busting the Stigma of Addiction with Education

Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Officer TJ. Why don’t we start out with a little background on what you are working on?

Thanks! For about the last year, I’ve been working on training First Responders in various topics involving addiction. After obtaining a great amount of education from The Addictions Academy myself, I put together a training program for other First Responders in my area of Gloucester County, NJ back in June – which went over really well! Some of the attendees of that class wanted me to bring the course closer to them and now I have a similar Addictions Training for First Responders class coming up on September 22 in Ocean County, NJ.

What motivated you to jump start this project with The Addictions Academy?

I saw a lack of education for police, firefighters, and EMS about addiction. There is a huge stigma surrounding addiction, and especially so in the First Responder field. As a police officer, I understood where the stigma came from but also understood that perpetuating the stigma didn’t do any good for anyone. I think that getting the education about addiction out there, especially to those on the front lines, will help destroy the stigma and really start to make a difference.

You’ve already done one successful training in Gloucester County. What would you say were some of the unexpected hurdles?

The training in Gloucester County was great – but it was definitely a learning process, as I’ve never done anything like that before. There were costs associated with running the class that I wasn’t prepared for and a lot of moving parts that I hadn’t anticipated. Partnering with strong sponsors really helped me out on both fronts.

What were some of the unexpected benefits?

Without a doubt, one of the greatest unexpected benefits in putting these classes together were the contacts I’ve made in the addictions industry; everyone seems to want to help out, it’s really great. Through those contacts, I’ve been able to help those struggling with substance abuse issues and refer them to places I’ve learned about that I think would be a good fit for them.

“Every life matters. Every life is worth saving. Saving someone with Naloxone gives them an opportunity to make positive changes and turn their lives around; why should we rob them of that chance?”

The training will provide education to first responders on how to properly handle those with substance use disorders, but it will also train how to deal with other first responders who struggle with addiction. Why do you think it is important to train on both?

Education on both fronts is absolutely critical. First Responders are called to catch bad guys and fix problems – whether that be a car accident, a domestic violence issue, a broken arm, or someone committing a crime. Unfortunately, that often means we forget about ourselves or other First Responders that may be struggling. First Responders are not in a position to be able to help others if we need help, and the training address and recognizes signs and symptoms to be on the lookout for that could indicate that a First Responder may need help.

Busting the Stigma of Addiction with Education

Would you say that more people need to be educated on how to manage addiction and the stigma that accompanies it?

I think everyone needs more education on how to manage addiction and the stigma associated with it – not just First Responders. Addiction is a disease that literally affects families across all ages, races, sexes, and geographic regions. Never before have I seen such an epidemic that is routinely and systematically “brushed under the rug” as if it didn’t exist. I think there has been some progress with this in the last few years, but we still have a long way to go. If more people were more educated about what addiction really is (and isn’t), we could really make a difference.

There is a lot of excitement (and controversy) around Naloxone, the opioid reversal drug. What would you say to those who are against it?

As with addiction, there is a huge stigma surrounding Naloxone. I hope that most of this is due to a lack of education about addiction and how Naloxone works. Naloxone saves lives. I’ve personally saved at least a dozen lives in the last year using Naloxone. In any other setting, this would be universally seen as an amazing feat, but with Naloxone, there is somehow controversy. We wouldn’t deny a diabetic insulin, or someone suffering from anaphylaxis Epinephrine, or someone suffering a heart attack from CPR – they are all life-saving measures that are relatively easy to administer. I hear the argument that those suffering from an overdose “are not worth saving” or “they’re justing going to do it again” – and that really bothers me. Every life matters. Every life is worth saving. Saving someone with Naloxone gives them an opportunity to make positive changes and turn their lives around; why should we rob them of that chance?

“Bringing addiction out into the open to people that may not see it on a daily basis is a great opportunity for open discussion.”

On the subject of the couple in Ohio that overdosed behind the wheel last week, what do you think about how the situation was handled by first responders and do you think it was a good/bad call by the city to post it so publicly on social media? 

The situation is horrible, but it unfolds across the country every day; if not in a car on the side of the street, at home on the couch.
I think the first responders handling the incident did the right thing.  Both were charged with child endangerment and rightfully so – if that vehicle was moving, things could have gone so much worse than they did.
The city releasing a still frame from the officers’ body cameras is understandably controversial, but I think and hope that their heads and hearts were in the right place when they released it.  Bringing addiction out into the open to people that may not see it on a daily basis is a great opportunity for open discussion.  As I mentioned before, these scenes unfold across the country and most people don’t realize it.  Publicizing an event like that may open the eyes of those in the dark, which is ultimately a positive thing.

Is there anything else that you would like to add?

As both a First Responder and someone with a significant amount of training in the addictions field, I have a unique understanding of the issues affecting each. Destroying the stigma surrounding addiction, especially in those on the front line, is one of the first steps we can take in helping solve the opiate epidemic that has been sweeping the country for years and only seems to be getting worse. First Responders are hungry for this type of education and it is my hope that holding these types of classes will greatly benefit everyone involved.

If you are a first responder in the Manahawkin area and are interested in attending this course (or future ones), please contact Officer McWain at 856-845-4004 ext, 432.




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