Changing the Stigma of Addiction
“Addiction is a complex brain disease with significant behavioral characteristics. Nicotine, alcohol, illicit drugs, and controlled prescription drugs all affect the pleasure and reward circuitry of the brain in similar ways. Over time, continued use of these substances can physically alter the structure and function of the brain, dramatically affect judgment and behavior and drive a compulsion to obtain and use them, even in the face of mounting negative consequences. Growing evidence also points to structural and functional differences in the brain and to genetic factors that may predispose certain individuals to addiction” – The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University
Why start this blog with a quote from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University? Well, I think people often forget that substance use disorder, aka addiction, is a disease, that requires some form of treatment. Yes, addiction is a recognized disease and should be treated as such. Therefore, the stigma surrounding addicts is an issue that must be resolved.
Let us not forget, that most opiate addicts start their addiction with prescribed painkillers from a trusted doctor. Let us also not forget that there is tremendous peer pressure for teens to use alcohol and experiment with other party drugs. Let us not forget that quality treatment isn’t exactly accessible for everyone. Let us not forget that the individual in active addiction is powerless. I don’t remind us of these things to make the one suffering from an addiction out to be an irresponsible victim, but I remind us of this in hopes to instill a little bit of empathy.
The lack of empathy and the increase of misunderstanding directly affects the way a community treats the individuals inside of it who are suffering from SUD. Since addiction is deadly, so deadly that hundreds of people die every day from it, this lack of empathy and increase of misunderstanding, is ultimately killing those who suffer. Yes, that’s correct, the misunderstanding of addicts, that results in the stigma around them, holds back the community at large from reaching out a helping hand to those in need; it’s about time that we overhaul this.
How do we overhaul such an overbearing stigma that profiles addicts?
There are a few possible solutions, but I think thematically they can be equated to advocacy, empathy, and understanding. First and foremost, those people in recovery must be willing to speak up and advocate the disease of substance use disorder. This advocacy does several things, including but not limited to showing people that recovering addicts don’t resemble the fantasy they had in their imagination, and it also gives the other side the voice it so desperately needs. I personally choose to be very open about the fact I am in recovery because I never know if the person I’m open with needs, or know someone who needs, a little bit of help. I’m also open about it for exactly the two reasons I listed above, it’s important to show people my age that those of us I recovery are no different than them, and it also helps me take a position to give those a voice who don’t, or can’t, speak for themselves.
Having empathy for addicts is admittedly difficult, and I didn’t even have it until I ended up in recovery. But why did I all of a sudden have a sense of empathy for addicts in and outside of recovery once I found myself in the rooms? Two reasons: the first is that I identified as being a part of that community, and the second is that I had an increased understanding of the subject. From my own experience, I’ve drawn the conclusion that empathy and understanding are directly linked, and I believe that the best way to advocate empathy is to instill a sense of understanding into the community at large.