Drug Addiction Viewed Far More Negatively Than Mental Illness

By McCarton Ackerman 10/02/14

A recent survey showing negative attitudes toward addicts raises questions over whether it's viewed as a disease or personal flaw.

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A new study published in the latest edition of the journal Psychiatric Services reports that the general public is more sympathetic to mental illness than drug addiction, raising questions as to whether addiction is viewed as a disease or a personal flaw.

Researchers in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health surveyed 709 participants about their views on drug addiction and mental illness. They found that views on drug addiction were far more negative and there was greater opposition to policies that might help addicts in their recovery. The only similarity between the views on addiction and mental illness was that 30% of those surveyed believed recovery from either is impossible.

"While drug addiction and mental illness are both chronic, treatable health conditions, the American public is more likely to think of addiction as a moral failing than a medical condition," said study leader Colleen L. Barry, PhD, MPP. "In recent years, it has become more socially acceptable to talk publicly about one's struggles with mental illness. But with addiction, the feeling is that the addict is a bad or weak person, especially because much drug use is illegal."

Sixty-four percent of those in the survey said employers should be allowed to deny work to someone with a drug addiction, compared to just 25% who believed that should be the case with mental illness. Sixty-two percent said they would work with someone who had a mental illness, but only 22% said they would work with someone who had a drug addiction. Even more surprisingly, only 57% believed addicts should have access to the same health insurance benefits as the general public, compared to 79% when it came to mental illness.

However, the researchers believed views on addiction could change over time in the general public. Barry noted that it was only recently not taboo to talk about taking antidepressant medication.

"The more shame associated with drug addiction, the less likely we as a community will be in a position to change attitudes and get people the help they need," said study author, Beth McGinty, PhD, MS. "If you can educate the public that these are treatable conditions, we will see higher levels of support for policy changes that benefit people with mental illness and drug addiction."

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.

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