September’s transitions can be both daunting and beautiful in the Rocky Mountain west with golden aspen leaves contrasting with fresh dustings of snow as daylight fades. It can also be a time for reflection and a catalyst for action as the dog days of August are replaced with crisp fall mornings and crystal-clear blue skies.
The month is also an interesting contrast in public awareness campaigns focused on people who oftentimes live in the shadows of chronic pain or who are recovering from a substance use disorder. My background in opioid pharmacology and neuroscience has often juxtaposed between these seemingly disparate groups.
Pain Awareness Month: a vital call to action
Pain, universally experienced by humans across the globe, is the body’s alarm system and an essential element of human survival. For millions, however, pain transcends its purpose, becoming an unrelenting companion that limits activities and reduces quality of life. Pain Awareness Month serves as an important reminder to shed light on an often times invisible illness, spotlighting the daily challenges individuals face. The goal is twofold: to foster empathy towards those silently grappling with pain’s debilitating effects and to raise awareness about the importance of providing better coordinated pain care to all those who need it.
In recent years, the opioid crisis has cast a further shadow over pain management conversations. The over-prescribing opioids for pain relief contributed to an epidemic of compulsive drug use and overdoses. Recognizing this, Pain Awareness Month advocates for a more holistic approach to managing chronic pain, embracing alternative treatments, physical therapies, and psychological support.
National Recovery Month: a journey of triumph
While Pain Awareness Month focuses on acknowledging and managing pain, National Recovery Month shifts the spotlight to the process of healing from a substance use disorder. It’s a time to celebrate the strength of those who have embarked on the path to recovery, highlighting their stories of resilience, perseverance, and redemption and giving hope for those who are still struggling with an addiction. The opioid class of drugs are particularly seductive and extraordinarily challenging to break from their compulsive use. National Recovery Month is a testament to the transformative power of hope, coordinated treatment resources, and support networks. It underscores the importance of viewing addiction not as a moral failing but as a complex medical condition that requires compassion and evidence-based interventions.
These two awareness campaigns intersect in profound ways and speak to the need for collaboration rather than the pointing of fingers and assignment of blame. Awareness is the first step towards shared understanding. Each disease has a tremendous stigma associated that can cast the individual out from mainstream society. Isolation contributes to anxiety, fear, and depression, common co-morbidities with each of these diseases. Collaboration helps to build trust and engenders empathy and compassion. Increased public awareness and united voices are more likely to catalyze change that improves access to coordinated resources and the ability to navigate them.
Awareness and advocacy events invite patients, healthcare professionals and legislators to engage in informed conversations about the existing challenges and shortcomings while also exploring solutions. The patient’s perspective is critical in the education of future healthcare providers and scientists who are looking for better treatment options. My career at Rocky Vista University and other graduate health universities has brought these voices into the classroom and laboratories, as well as into community forums and the halls of congress.
A call to action
As September dawns, let’s seize the opportunity to unite under the banners of Pain Awareness Month and National Recovery Month. It’s a time to educate ourselves, and each other, about the complexities of pain and substance use disorders, to be more empathetic towards those who endure them, and to advocate for improved pain management techniques and addiction treatment resources.
Through open conversations, we can empower individuals to ask better questions about their specific disease and treatment options, thereby improving the odds of a successful recovery back to s state of health and well-being. In these observances, we find the threads that connect pain, addiction, recovery, and healing rather than issues that divide us. Together, let’s weave a tapestry of awareness, compassion, and action – creating a society where chronic diseases are better understood, and the individual is welcomed back into our communities.
Ed Bilsky, Ph.D. is the Provost and Chief Academic Officer at Rocky Vista University. He earned his Ph.D. in Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University of Arizona and has spent over 35 years as a scientist studying opioids and the neurobiology of pain and addiction. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.