The father of Worcester State University student Emmett Scannell, who died of a heroin overdose in April 2016, spoke to about 70 faculty, staff, and students gathered in the North/South Auditorium recently. Bill Scannell discussed his son’s life and struggle with substance use disorder, called for an end to the stigma that surrounds those with SUD, and offered advice from lessons learned about how to defeat the current heroin epidemic that has become a national crisis.
“Make no mistake, addiction is a disease,” Scannell said. “There’s no way around it. And yet we continue to treat this heroin crisis as a crime issue, not as a health [issue].”
After his son’s death, Scannell, a lawyer from Bridgewater, Mass., was galvanized to take action as the heroin epidemic continued to grow in the state. The Scannell family established an account in Emmett’s name to help raise awareness and advocate for legislative changes to combat Substance Use Disorder. Scannell also founded H.O.P.E.S. (Help Our Planet End Stigma) Forever, a group of drug policy advocates who have lost friends and family members to substance use disorder or otherwise concerned about the epidemic.
“We are not a support group,” says the HOPES Forever Facebook group page . “As concerned citizens (we) wish to stop the stigma, promote awareness, education, early intervention, prevention, and access to treatment for all with this disease [of Substance Use Disorder.]”
Scannell explained that one of the most devastating and insurmountable effects of substance use disorder is that it radically affects one’s brain chemistry, specifically the Nucleus accumbens in the limbic system, which is responsible for basic functions such as fear, pleasure, and motivation. The levels of dopamine, a chemical that acts a neurotransmitter, are crucial for healthy function in this part of the brain.
“When you use a substance like heroin, it shoots your dopamine levels up to extremely high levels, and after the effect of that substance subsides, your dopamine levels go below normal, because that super high level is the new ‘normal’ level,” he said.
As a result, those who suffer from SUD are compelled to achieve those high levels of dopamine, sometimes, no matter what it takes.
“There’s a reason why police and drug groups show those pictures of meth addicts to high schoolers,” he said, referring to the series of mug shots of meth users that show the progression of their addiction. “People need to see physical proof of how drugs affect your body. The brain chemistry doesn’t have as much as an impact.”
Emmett Scannell, however, seemed to be the farthest thing from what people stereotypically consider to be a drug user. A National Honor Society student from Bridgewater Raynham Regional High School, Emmett received a full scholarship to attend Worcester State, where he studied computer science. He was athletic, outgoing, and was friends with similarly bright and compassionate individuals. He was a student in good standing when he died at age 20.
“Emmett was smart—very smart, which was both a blessing and a curse,” his father said. “He was able to hide his addiction from his friends and teachers because he was high-functioning on opioids, and he was able to manipulate us, his parents, into thinking he had his addiction under control.”
His son had struggled with SUD since he was a teenager, and his drug use started with marijuana and escalated. After rehabilitation and therapy, Emmett was sober, or “in recovery,” for some time. While it was not known exactly when to his parents, at some point after Emmett went away to college, he began using again.
“We did our best to check up on him, as all good parents do, but there was only so much we could do,” Scannell said. “We believed that he was doing the right thing.” Emmett slowly fell in and out of contact with his parents as his drug use spiraled out of control. They tried to keep him closer to home by transferring him from Worcester State to Bridgewater State University, but Emmett broke with his parents and began living with his girlfriend’s family.
After Emmett experienced his first heroin overdose, and was taken to St. Vincent’s Hospital, he called his father in a panic—not because of what had happened to him, but because he was afraid that his father would be angry at him for the emergency room fee.
“He thought that was more important than the fact that he almost lost his life,” Scannell said. “I think Emmett had such a hard time admitting that he had a problem because he was so used to being successful. He was a straight ‘A’ student, had a full scholarship, a high school sweetheart, and loving friends and family. Accepting that he failed in this aspect of his life was too hard for him take, and a lot of people with SUD—even without SUD—have the same problem. It’s hard to admit failure.”
After Emmett’s death on April 20, 2016, his dad visited his son’s room to collect his things and comfort his roommates.
“They were shocked,” he said. “They had no idea that Emmett was suffering from this problem. It was very difficult, because I felt like I had to apologize to them for my son’s behavior, and they felt guilty because they felt like they could have done something to help Emmett. But of course, nobody was to blame here.”
There are a number of factors that Scannell believes have exacerbated the heroin epidemic, particularly when it comes to health insurance and hospital care.
“Most insurance companies will only pay for about a week of detox, when most users need about a full year to recover,” he said. “And hospital emergency rooms often kick these people out as soon as they revive them from an overdose. Why aren’t they treated the same as a heart attack victim?”
The most likely answer, he said, was the stigma that drug users and their families face in a society that continues to treat them as criminals.
To combat this stigma, Scannell encourages friends and family of drug users to advocate and vote for changes in federal and state drug policies and for candidates who support reforms, educate others about the nature of addiction as a disease, and support their loved ones in recovery with “tough love” and empathy.
“Be proud of them,” he said. “Don’t be ashamed, and don’t be afraid of the stigma.”