Stigma and addiction have long accompanied each other. For centuries, those who have had the misfortune of being touched by mental illness, such as addiction, have been ostracized by the community. Treated in a way that you would never treat someone suffering from another form of malady. While the efforts of lawmakers, organizations and health experts have helped to erode the stigma of addiction, alcoholics and addicts are still social pariahs.
Over the last two decades however, we have seen a dramatic shift in how the general public views addiction. More and more Americans now accept the disease model of addiction, as a serious mental illness that requires treatment as opposed to punishment. Thanks, in part, to the deadly opioid addiction epidemic that has stolen thousands of American lives and left millions in the grip of opioid use disorder. Of late, lawmakers have seen the value of giving addicts a chance at recovery, rather than punishing them with draconian drug laws that do nothing more than trap people in the jaws of the criminal justice system.
More than half of the people serving time in jails and prisons are in there because of nonviolent drug offenses. Very little emphasis is placed on introducing such people to programs of recovery, short of maybe one or two weekly 12-Step meetings. But this is but a by-product of the stigma of addiction, based on fear rather than science. Those given the opportunity to recover, can and do recover. Often going on to lead fruitful and productive lives.
Stigma: Talking About The Realities of Addiction
One the major forces behind the continued stigma of addiction is people’s unwillingness to talk about it. Addicts and alcoholics go to great lengths to mask the seriousness of their problem, and their families are often hesitant to share with their friends and extended family members about their loved one’s condition. Typically, because of shame and guilt, mothers and fathers will convince themselves that their son or daughter’s mental illness is some fault of their own. That they were not good parents. All of which could not be further from the truth.
One could argue, that at no other time in our history has the need to talk openly about addiction been greater. Particularly when you consider that around 100 people die of an overdose every day in the country. The overdose death rate has nearly tripled in the last 15 years, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Given that one of the biggest deterrents to addicts seeking treatment, a choice that can reduce the risk of one experiencing a fatal overdose, is the stigma of addiction.
When Families Speak Up About Addiction
For every opioid user who dies of an overdose, there are countless family member left behind to try to make sense of it all. As you could probably guess, many of the bereaved are hesitant to share with people the cause of death. However, when families share their loved one’s story it can have a rippling effect. Potentially helping other families intervene in their own loved one’s situation.
In Southern California, most adults are probably familiar with the name Dr. Drew. While celebrity doctors are often viewed with some apprehension, the former Loveline host is a board-certified internist, addiction medicine specialist. He has helped a number of addicts and their families get the help they desperately need—addiction is a family disease, after all.
Dr. Drew Midday Live can be heard daily on 790 KABC. Recently, he was interviewed about addiction, and he encouraged families that have lost someone to the disease to not sanitize what actually happened or be afraid about moral condemnation by society. He said:
“Don’t mistake the fact that addiction makes people do bad things with the notion that these are bad people or that addiction is bad. I mean people in the throes of addiction get very desperate and they are not themselves at all and their brain is diseased and it causes behaviors that are characteristic of the diseased brain and they die oftentimes.”
Dr. Drew added:
“If people want to sanitize it and say something like, ‘My son died of a brain disease that included behavior that has him shooting drugs,’ OK I’d go with that, if you want to change the nomenclature. But let’s not pretend that that’s not what killed people or that’s not what that person had, that they died of ‘exhaustion’ or that they needed to be ‘hospitalized for dehydration.’ Let’s stop it already.”
The disease can be treated and people can achieve long term recovery. There is plenty of evidence to support those words. As a society, we need to continue to work together to end the stigma of addiction, so that more people will be willing to seek help without fear. If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, please contact Infinity Malibu today.