Suicide: The Hidden Risk of Addiction and Mental Health

The Perils & Misconceptions of Addiction

What thoughts come to mind when the word addiction is brought to the surface? Is it “junkie”, “drunk”, “druggie”, or “crackhead?” Why not the words “awareness”, “substance use disorders,” and “mental health?” Our society has created a stigma towards the disease of addiction. that leads people to believe that someone who abuses drugs or alcohol, despite the consequences, is weak minded or morally failed. The belief is that addicts choose to be addicts, but this belief is wrong. When someone is struggling with a substance abuse disorder, they often struggle with the guilt and shame of their abuse, due to this stigma surrounding addiction. Stigma is a public health issue which has the potential to negatively affect a person’s self-esteem, damage relationships with loved ones and prevent those suffering from accessing help or treatment.

Stigma is defined as a set of negative beliefs that a group or society holds about a topic or group of people. Rarely is stigma based on facts but rather on assumptions, preconceptions, and generalizations. Stigmas are imposed by society, communities, friends, and family members. When friends and family are uneducated about the disease of addiction they often carry negative feelings about drug or alcohol use behavior. Addiction is a chronic disease that alters the physical structure and function of the brain, which in turn alters behavior. The disease of addiction does not discriminate.  Becoming dependent on drugs or alcohol can happen to anyone, regardless of their race, age, gender or economic and social status. Therefore, the negative impact it is causing, can be prevented or minimized through educating society on the disease of addiction.

Educating on the Disease of Addiction

There are a number of areas that are negatively impacted by the stigma towards addiction. These include one’s willingness to attend treatment or access healthcare, harm reduction, self-esteem, and mental health. Studies have found that some healthcare providers feel uncomfortable when working with people who struggle from substance abuse. When healthcare providers or professionals carry a stigma towards people with drug or alcohol dependencies it directly effects an individual’s willingness to seek help or treatment. Stigma can also affect the public’s perception of evidence-based harm reduction. Harm reduction refers to public health interventions like needle exchange, substitution therapies, and safe drug consumption rooms that are designed to decrease the risk associated with drug use.  One of the most detrimental impacts stigma has is the harm it causes in their social lives. When people struggle from substance abuse they often lose touch with their community and family therefore causing a feeling of profound loneliness and isolation.  The chronic stress of this and constant discrimination may affect the mental and social health of individuals who suffer from substance abuse.  The mental health consequence of isolation can fuel more drug use and lead to further isolation.

Reducing stigma associated with the disease of addiction is not an easy task when not only society but authoritative sources have endorsed misconceptions and prejudice for generations.  Education on addiction as a disease can help society adapt and become more socially accepting of people with all types of health conditions. Successful stigma reduction initiatives require manpower, money, time and effort. According to SAMHSA, stigma reduction strategies include: education, contact with mental health consumers, and rewards for positive depictions of people with mental health challenges. Ethan Embry, an actor best known for his role in the 1998 teen drama Can’t Hardly Wait recently opened up about his struggle with substance abuse.  He recently tweeted, “I believe the first step to combat the opiate crisis is dismantling the stigma attached to addiction.” Addicts have been told that their behavior deserves punishment, but all this accomplishes is multiplying the shame that they already experience.  People with addiction deserve to be treated like any other person with a medical disease.  Eliminating stigma, prejudice and discrimination against people suffering from substance abuse disorders is a crucial part to helping them recover.