Taking The Stigma Out Of Addiction

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Taking The Stigma Out Of Addiction

By Paul Gaita 10/09/14

Addiction—a mental illness or a moral failing?


As an editorial on the Talbot Spy site recently noted, modern society is of two minds on the subject of drug addiction. Decades of hard work by the recovery community have helped to push the notion of addiction as a mental disease to the forefront of opinion. But by the same token, addiction is also viewed as a moral failing, linked to both a weak character and criminal activity, which should be addressed with swift and final punishment by our legal system.

A recent poll by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health appeared to cement that two-pronged belief: of the more than 700 people surveyed for the poll, 64% believed that employers should be allowed to deny work to someone with a drug addiction, while only 57% believed that addicts should have the same access to health insurance as the general public. Should one dismiss this attitude as the product of an ever-increasing conservative American mindset, a 2010 poll by the United Kingdom Drug Policy Commission found that 58% of those surveyed believed that one of the root causes of drug addiction is a lack of self-discipline and willpower, while 43% of the respondents stated that they would not want to live near a person with a history of drug dependence.

These conclusions are not all the result of small-minded, mean-spirited individuals; as a 2009 UK Drug Policy Commission study found, approximately 1.5 million people in the UK are affected by a relative’s drug issues, while a 2012 survey from the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids and the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services found that 23. 5 million adults consider themselves in recovery from either drugs or alcohol. Clearly, not all of these people are solitary figures with any familial or social attachments. But of that 2012 figure, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that only 2.5 million individuals sought or received treatment for their addiction. 

Lack of insurance accounted for a quarter of those who failed to find help for their problem, but it’s likely that many of those individuals failed to do so because of shame. A study in the August 2005 issue of Addictive Behaviors surveyed three groups of people with different levels of drug-related problems – two sets of college students and a group of prison inmates – and found that in all three groups, shame was significantly linked to substance abuse issues. So fear of judgment and societal reproach, which manifests itself as shame, is a problem faced by a wide demographic within the community of addicts.

Removing the stigma of shame and pain from addiction requires a tectonic shift in the way the disease is viewed by all individuals, and such efforts require persistence, faith and bravery on the part of those seeking to implement the change. And there have been both large-scale and small, more intimate attempts to dispel the stigmatic elements of addiction. In July of this year, the White House continued its commitment to a rational, balanced, and science-based approach to addiction and recovery, as outlined in Barack Obama’s National Drug Control Strategy of 2010, by requesting $25.5 billion in Fiscal Year 2015 for, among other initiatives, including substance abuse treatment in the health care program and ending the revolving door policy of drug use and criminalization. 

The Obama administration’s stance echoes a similar position made by the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which issued a report in September calling for “an informed, science-based discussion about humane and effective ways to reduce the harm caused by drugs to people and societies. But there have also been smaller-scale, more grass-roots efforts to spread the word about ending the shame factor in addiction. The recovery advocacy group manyfaces1voice has produced a documentary, The Anonymous People, which presents stories from individuals in long-term recovery in an attempt to “transform public attitudes and policies affecting people seeking or in recovery from alcohol and other drugs.” Ending the cycle of shame and societal rejection for drug addiction can become a movement for positive change. What it needs is the support and strength of all individuals, from all social and political strata, to give voice to those who have been made afraid to speak about their pain.

Paul Gaita is a Los Angeles-based writer. He has contributed to The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Amazon and The Los Angeles Beat, among other publications and sites. He last wrote about buying drugs online and the 'blame the victim' mentality of campus rape.

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