PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) – The City of Portsmouth has an opioid problem. When the pandemic hit, drug overdoses increased 70% from 2020 to 2021.

The Portsmouth Health Department hosted an anti-stigma training conference Thursday to fight the epidemic and help people find hope.

The “Pledge to Be Stigma Free” took place at the Renaissance Waterfront Hotel and is a part of the effort to address individuals with substance use disorder being affected by the opioid overdose crisis. The conference included expert discussions, integrative approaches and voices from the field.

“The judgements just need to come down,” said keynote speaker Marlon Bacote.

The well-dressed, well-spoken man is a recovering addict.

“I was on an $80,0000 scholarship in Boston playing football (and) tore my leg up,” Bacote told WAVY. “The opioids started and then the cocaine addiction wasn’t too far behind it.”

Health professional and mother of four, Tara Allison, is also a recovering addict.

“Drugs are just a symptom of what’s wrong,” Allison said. “We’re seeking a solution for a problem that people aren’t addressing in our culture.”

The Portsmouth Health Department brought together a group of police, EMS responders, healthcare providers and others after forming the Portsmouth Coalition for Overdose Prevention.

“Addiction really is not the exception, it’s more so the norm,” said Portsmouth Health Director Dr. Kavita Imrit-Thomas. “Eighty percent of us has some sort of addiction, whether it’s caffeine, whether it’s work, whether it’s sleep, whether it’s food.”

The Centers for Disease Control awarded Portsmouth a grant to tackle the opioid crisis. The anti-stigma training put on with money from that grant aims to change attitudes and actions towards addicts.

“There’s the nocebo effect that shows just by talking with a certain person with compassion and care that you can really alter the outcome of that behavior,” Imrit-Thomas said.

The message for all of us, Bacote said, is to “stop the name calling.”

Allison implored that we all need to start to understand.

“At the end of the day, under that disease, under that grip,” Allison said, “there is a human being in there that needs compassion, that needs love.”

Know more

The Portsmouth Health Department will take its message to the masses during the Umoja Festival on Memorial Day weekend. At its booth, you will be able to pick up a ‘Harm Reduction Kit’ which includes Narcan and fentanyl testing strips. Health professionals will be training folks right there on how to use the potentially life-saving tools.