The surgeon general wants to permanently change the way we think about addiction.

Jess Keefe didn't know her brother Matt had a drug problem until he was rushed to the hospital in 2011.

His hand was swelling up, he was in pain, and no one knew what it was. After days of tests and close watching, Matt was diagnosed with an infection caused by intravenous drug use. A brain scan revealed the culprit: heroin.

"He was very much in denial," Jess explains. "He didn’t want to acknowledge what was happening and was very resistant to treatment of any kind."


Matt Keefe. Photo courtesy of Jess Keefe.

In the coming weeks, Jess and her family tried as hard as they could to get Matt into a recovery center but to no avail. None of the detox and rehab centers in their area had space for him. Matt was sent home to his parents with a firm verbal prescription: Stop doing drugs.

Tragically, it didn't work. Matt recovered temporarily, but eventually started using again and died of an overdose on Oct. 5, 2015, at the age of 26.

Despite the fact that drug addiction affects tens of millions of Americans every year, treatment for it is remarkably hard to come by.

More than 100 Americans die from drug overdoses every day, making it the number one cause of accidental death in the United States — more than car accidents and gun deaths, according to CDC reports. Overdoses from opiates like heroin and prescription painkillers have quadrupled since 1999.

This neighborhood in Staten Island has a high rate of heroin use. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

Despite those high numbers, only about 10% of people with substance abuse disorders receive specialty treatment for their addictions.

Filling the enormous gap between the necessity and availability of treatment requires a massive overhaul of our medical, educational, and criminal justice systems. The first step, though, is the same one that people have to take when they enter addiction recovery: We have to acknowledge that we have a problem.

In a new landmark report, Vivek Murthy became the first U.S. surgeon general to call America's addiction problem what it is: a public health crisis.

The report, released in November 2016, urges a paradigm shift in the way we think of and treat addiction. In it, Murthy calls on the United States to stop thinking of substance abuse as a "moral failing" and approach it instead it as a brain disease that is identifiable, preventable, and treatable.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy speaking with President Obama in 2015. Photo by Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images.

"We must help everyone see that addiction is not a character flaw," the report says. "It is a chronic illness that we must approach with the same skill and compassion with which we approach heart disease, diabetes, and cancer."

Jess Keefe, who now works as an editor for Shatterproof, an addiction-focused nonprofit, says she is "thrilled" by the report, which was released a little over a year after her brother's overdose. "I can’t emphasize enough how exciting that is to people who are affected by this disease personally, and people who work in the sort of space that I do."

Addiction in America has reached critical mass, and it's taken decades to fully acknowledge it. So what's been holding us back?

People don't die from addiction, Jess says. They die from shame. "That's the thing that really kills people. They feel like they can’t reach out or get resources when they need them because its something that's driven into the dark corners."

Photo by David McNew/Getty Images.

Jess' brother, Matt, for example, hid his addiction from his family until it landed him in the emergency room. Even after, he continued hiding it, holding down a nine-to-five job all the way until the day he died.

Human beings have a long history of stigmatizing diseases we don't fully understand — from leprosy, to cancer, to AIDS in the 1980s. The results of that stigma can be devastating and far-reaching, especially when it persists for generations. Stigma and shame are what keep people with addictions from coming forward to seek help and why doctors and recovery systems can be unprepared to handle those patients when they do.

Until the systems are fixed, until the stigma is addressed, people like Matt will continue to feel discouraged from asking for help, and people will continue to die.

Like any massive problem, solving America's addiction crisis will require a lot of time and dedication, but Murthy has taken a major step forward.

The surgeon general is the highest ranking doctor in the United States, and his acknowledgement of addiction as a public health epidemic will no doubt lead to the medical community having more of the resources and training necessary to fight it

Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images.

The surgeon general's report, however, is just the beginning. The rest of the fight is largely up to us.

Our part in destigmatizing addiction begins with the words we use, says Jess. Instead of calling someone an "addict," for example, which can carry harmful connotations, we can say "person with addiction" or "person with a substance abuse disorder." That small shift in language helps recontextualize addiction as a disease that a person has, rather than their unshakable identity.

When someone stops doing drugs, calling them "clean" carries an implication that the alternative is dirty. "If someone's not using, they’re 'in recovery,'" suggests Jess. "Stuff like that actually has a big impact on how society perceives people with these problems and also how people with these problems perceive themselves."

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

The real battle is the one that needs to happen in our minds and in our hearts. Chances are we all know someone, or will know someone, who will face a substance abuse disorder. Thinking of that individual not as someone who's made terrible judgements but as someone with a treatable disease of the brain will help us all provide support and empathy for people in need.

Treating addiction with compassion instead of judgment isn't just the right thing to do; it could be life-saving.

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Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

According to NOW Toronto, the producers of Frozen II have entered into a contract with the Sámi people—the Indigenous people of the Scandinavian regions—to ensure that they portray the culture with respect.

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Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

Frozen II features Indigenous culture much more directly, and even addressed the issue of Indigenous erasure. Filmmakers Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, along with producer Peter Del Vecho, consulted with experts on how to do that respectfully—the experts, of course, being the Sámi people themselves.

Sámi leaders met with Disney producer Peter Del Vecho in September 2019.Sámediggi Sametinget/Flickr

The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

In a contract signed by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Sámi leaders, the Sámi stated their position that "their collective and individual culture, including aesthetic elements, music, language, stories, histories, and other traditional cultural expressions are property that belong to the Sámi," and "that to adequately respect the rights that the Sámi have to and in their culture, it is necessary to ensure sensitivity, allow for free, prior, and informed consent, and ensure that adequate benefit sharing is employed."

RELATED: This aboriginal Australian used kindness and tea to trump the racism he overheard.

Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, was part of the Verddet advisory group. She told NOW, "This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories. It hasn't happened before."

"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

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