The Stigma of Drug Addiction: A Mindset Preventing Progress
The stigma of drug addiction is currently a massive roadblock which is keeping us as a society from truly implementing the types of changes which we desperately need in order to help overcome addiction and alcoholism. Substance abuse, in forms like drug addiction and alcoholism, is something that has been a problem in our society for centuries. The old ideas associated with addiction in general were based on the incomplete and inaccurate information which was known at the time, however even with new scientific and medical research illuminating the true nature of drug addiction much of the stigma of drug addiction still remains. This stigma is a significant problem as modern research has made huge strides in uncovering effective means of treatment for drug abuse, however progress towards these methods has been slowed by perceptions about the disease which are remnants of past centuries.
What was once considered a moral and behavioral issue, drug addiction and alcoholism was believed to be a problem which was only had by “bad” or “weak” individuals who lacked will power or the proper moral fiber to live productive lives. These thoughts led to methods of dealing with alcoholics and drug addicts which ranged from simply ineffective to downright barbaric. The focus was less on treating the individual and more on removing them from society to lessen the negative impact their problems created.
As the problem of substance abuse in our country began to grow however, these old methods grew more and more impractical. Still, for decades the stigma of drug addiction continued to impede any type of real progress towards treatment. More recently, research and information about the nature of drug addiction and alcoholism has revealed much more effective and practical ways of treating the problem. Unfortunately, the stigma of drug addiction which was reinforced over centuries has not evolved as quickly as the science of the disease has which has led to some conflict. Modern, and mostly effective, treatment methods for substance abuse have continued to be introduced as time has progressed. Some of these methods are astonishingly effective when utilized correctly, signaling the true possibility of making an impact on the problem that society has been looking to fix for many years. However, the successful implementation of these methods is going to require a substantial public effort, which may not be possible until a large portion of the population is in agreement that addiction is a disease which needs to be treated and not punished.
The history of the stigma of drug addiction
Substance abuse issues like drug addiction and alcoholism have been present in society for millennia. Since man discovered substances like alcohol and marijuana there have been those who have struggled with addictions to them. For most of our history, because very little was understood about how our brains worked, these people were written off as “broken” individuals whose morals were misaligned, choosing drugs and alcohol over things like family and society by preference.
This point of view, which is the basis for the stigma of drug addiction, led to most people in the past feeling that there was no real way to treat the problem. Instead, the focus was on how to lessen the negative impact that these drug addicts and alcoholics created within society by separating them altogether or relegating them to lives as beggars and hobos. There were periods of time where various other methods for resolving the issue were attempted with mostly ineffective results. Focuses on things like religious conversions, stiff prison sentences or lifelong stays in insane asylums were all favored forms of addressing the issue of substance abuse in the past.
These forms of misguided “treatment” were all based on the stigma of substance abuse as a moral failing of an individual, which would be overcome if only the person was given the right motivation to decide to change their life. Unfortunately, the persistence of this idea led to an only increasing issue as things like crime, homelessness, mental illness and even death continued to be the norm for anyone who found themselves addicted to drugs or alcohol. This is because these forms of dealing with the issue of substance abuse don’t address what we now know to be the core issue, which is the disease of addiction.
If this rather extensive history of failed attempts to address the problem of substance abuse has taught us anything, it is that attempting to coerce people into making the right decision for themselves, without and professional intervention, does not work. Banishing drug addicts and alcoholics to prison and mental institutions may remove them temporarily from society, but it is not solving the issue. Short of locking everyone up for life, these people are going to return to society eventually and unless they are allowed to recover from their issues, they will return to the life they were living previously.
Thankfully, there are some corners of society in which the disease model of addiction is beginning to truly take hold, allowing some to change their stance on the correct way to address the issue. However, large swaths of the population have yet to change their stance on this issue which is holding society at large back from finally resolving the issue of drug abuse.
Problems the stigma of drug addiction continues to create
Society has finally begun to notice that the old ways of thinking about drug addiction and alcoholism are not working. This is largely due to recent revelations in the field of psychological research and substance abuse treatment, which have illuminated the fact that addiction is a neurological disorder and not simply a lack of will power. Those who are afflicted with drug addiction and alcoholism have lost the power of choice to simply say no because their brains are telling them that they need the drug or drink to survive.
Because of this, modern methods of treating drug addiction and alcoholism have moved towards actual medical and therapeutic treatment which is based on reprogramming behaviors and thought processes and not simply attempting to punish or shame someone into changing themselves. In fact, many people who struggle with substance abuse desperately want to change their lives but are simply unable to do so on their own.
Luckily, these modern treatment methods have been shown to be much more effective than ways society has attempted to use in the past. Things like inpatient treatment at substance abuse facilities, medical detoxification programs and extensive therapy all show much higher success rates than things like extended jail sentences. We know how to treat addiction now with generally good results, however the stigma of drug addiction is continuing to make it difficult for everyone to receive that treatment.
For many of the people in our country who struggle with substance abuse, a visit to a jail or prison is far more likely than a stay in a residential treatment center. This is because lawmakers and law enforcement officials are still largely guided by the outdated principles that are associated with the stigma of drug addiction. Many of those who are still ignorant to the disease model of addiction still feel that law enforcement, punishment and arrests are the only way forward when it comes to stopping the “scourge” of drugs in this country. This again comes from the now disproved notion that drug addicts and alcoholics are simply bad people who make the wrong choices. When substance abuse is viewed in this light, the only logical way of dealing with it is to lock these people away in order to remove them and the problems they generate from the rest of society.
This thought process however is largely what has led to America having what is now the largest prison population in the world at around 2.2 million people. The reality is that the problem of substance abuse is not going to go away, or at least be reduced, until our society can overcome the stigma of drug addiction.
Breaking the stigma: the only way forward
The silver lining to this issue of the stigma of drug abuse is that there has been progress in recent years. While painfully slow, society has begun to accept the notion that addiction is a disease which requires treatment as opposed to punishment. Substance abuse treatment is becoming more common, with new programs opening every year, however there is still a long way to go.
Currently the country is facing one of the most serious and devastating substance abuse epidemics in its history. The opioid epidemic is now leading to over 50,000 deaths every year from fatal opioid overdoses. Because of the overwhelming severity of this problem some institutions, such as law enforcement agencies and state legislatures, which have been previously unwilling to change their stance on drug abuse are finally opening up to the possibility of change. Instead of simply arresting those who are addicted to drugs for things like possession, only to have them released back on the streets to continue using, and dying, a real effort is now being made to offer some sort of treatment for their substance abuse issues. Many counties across America are instituting specialized drug courts which allow qualified people to defer their punishment if they agree to go to treatment, take drug regular drug tests and prove that they are staying clean. While the results have been somewhat mixed, the one thing that most professionals agree on is that this method is far superior to the old one.
Still, these programs are not universal across the entirety of the country and there are plenty of states and counties which have no such programs and are continuing to stick to their old ways. Again, this comes down to stigma. Lawmakers and law enforcement officials are mostly beholden to the wants of the general public, who vote for their representatives. Many parts of the country consistently vote against individuals who run on any type of platform which includes drug treatment reform, citing that it is a soft stance on crime and that all drug addicts are criminals who should rightly be locked away in jail or prison. Until these holdouts, which are still widespread in many regions, are able to view the issue of substance abuse as a disease and overcome the stigma of drug addiction we will still face considerable issues when it comes to stemming the tide of the opiate epidemic, and all of the societal problems that come along with all forms of drug addiction and alcoholism. We have a substantial and effective way to treat the disease of addiction, but we must all agree to begin to utilize it on a widespread and universal basis before real changes can begin to take effect.