Children are hidden victims in the opioid epidemic. Any solution to our addiction crisis must cut through the stigma, or else their future is at risk.

Marc Siegel | Opinion columnist 

Alicia Reddy, a nurse known as the “addiction angel” of Staten Island, New York, for her unwavering efforts to help those addicted to opioids quit, told me about one addict who couldn’t stop using heroin despite many attempts and multiple rehabilitation programs. Finally, he fathered a child who had a severe bowel disorder requiring several surgeries. In the process of supporting his child and arranging for extensive treatment and followup, this addict finally found a purpose to his life outside of his addiction and was able to quit.

Opioid addiction is more than just a disease, it is a serpent that grabs at the soul and doesn’t let go. The addiction story involves more than the growing number of opioid overdose deaths (more than 47,000 in 2017 alone), it is an entire culture based on false premises. At the heart of the culture is the faulty medical notion that chronic pain should mean an automatic prescription, that it is OK for drug manufacturers to grease the wheel and for doctors to readily write prescriptions for conditions they haven’t fully diagnosed or don’t understand.

The problem then extends beyond the staggering 191 million opioid prescriptions written in 2017 and involves illicit use, where 80% of those addicted to heroin began with prescription drugs, which often aren’t even prescribed for them. The opioid epidemic is an intertwined legal and illegal culture of abuse and misuse leading to addiction.

Opioid fight must include families

The opioid crisis involves more than just individual patients; it strikes at the heart of affected families and through them to entire communities. Treating those addicted requires a deep understanding and an intervention that takes into account many layers of both addiction and the impact it has on others. Medically assisted therapies may help someone quit, but a more comprehensive approach helps them stay clean.

Salia Woodbury, whose parents are in recovery, with “Sesame Street” character Karli.

Which is why the nonprofit Sesame Workshop needs to be applauded for its 6-year-old Muppet character Karli, who is representative of an entire troubled group of children in foster care who have parents with addiction. Nearly 6 million children younger than 11 have parents suffering from drug addiction, and of the more than 268,000 children and teens being removed from their families in 2017, more than a third occurred because of a parent with a substance abuse problem.

Karli represents these children and speaks about the problems with adjustment and the disenfranchisement they face.

Top health officials:Use money from opioid lawsuits for treatment and prevention

Children are the hidden victims of the opioid epidemic, and they are also part of the solution, as family impact and damage must be addressed. The nonprofit group Eluna is running 13 camps in several states hit hard by the opioid crisis. These children have experienced trauma and neglect, and many are in foster care. The camps are a place where they can share their feelings with experts and interact with others who are facing the same problems.

A compassionate green Muppet

These children are at higher risk of becoming addicted themselves, so the interventions to provide coping skills must occur as early as possible. A three-year study found that close to 100% of children who participated in the Eluna program never used a substance to get high or found themselves in trouble with the juvenile justice system.

As for Karli, a green Muppet with yellow hair, I admire her strength and her character. She exhibits compassion and love for her mother despite her predicament. “Sesame Street” has been around for 50 years. The show has an important history representing misunderstood and troubled children by including one child (Muppet) on the autistic spectrum, another who was impoverished, malnourished and homeless, and another who had a father in jail.

Karli’s story is part of a series of educational videos, storybooks, articles and coloring pages released this month as part of the Sesame Street in Communities project.

Editorial page editor:The opioid crisis hits home. Mine.

Cutting through the stigma attached to addiction is an important part of treatment, aided greatly by supportive families and friends. Embarrassment and shame frequently get in the way of compliance and recovery. I respond to my patients suffering from addiction with nonjudgmental compassion and empathy. It is the “doctors” and drug salesmen who helped to create this problem in the first place who should feel ashamed. For them, I feel no compassion. They need to reconsider their Hippocratic oath.

Marc Siegel, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and a Fox News medical correspondent, is a clinical professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Medical Center. Follow him on Twitter: @DrMarcSiegel