Dispelling the Stigma Around Behavioral Health

Even before the hysteria of ‘Reefer Madness’ and efforts to cast drug users as malicious, depraved individuals deliberately flouting society, the stigma of addiction persisted in our society. Our current efforts have not traveled far enough to clear the labels often attached to those who are addicted to drugs in America. In this regard, reducing the stigma surrounding addiction through education and training will prove crucial.

Over the course of the coming essays, we investigate the various ways student writers have come up with to reduce both the stigma around addiction, and conversely, the glamorization and mythos built up around drugs in popular culture. Although these aims may seem contradictory, the team at Find Addiction Rehabs invites you to read about several elegant ways to address these twin issues and truly ‘make an impact’ on addiction in the United States.

1. L.R. (University of Houston)

There is a certain paradigm that surrounds addicts in this country. People tend to view addiction as a moral or personal failure; If that person had tried harder, or if they were a better person, they wouldn’t be where they are.

This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Most people become addicts because they are trying to cope with something in their present, or escape from the traumatic experiences of their past.

Addiction as a Survival Mechanism

For instance, a homeless man might start using what little money he has on alcohol, simply because it makes his circumstances easier to deal with. By viewing addiction as a moral failure, people can ignore the systematic failure of society to help those who are struggling mentally or physically. This link between mental health and addiction makes me think of my grandpa. He passed away when my mother was fourteen from a pill overdose.

According to my grandmother, he started taking them after he came back from serving in Vietnam. He just didn’t have the professional help necessary to process whatever he had seen overseas, and it led him to alcohol and pills. His story is far from unique. So many people in this country are struggling with their mental health, and often turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to cope. Unfortunately, all people see is the addiction and the effect that addicts have on their surroundings, not the cause of the addiction.

Mental Health Awareness and Addiction in America

I believe that if more focus was put unto the mental health portion of addiction, and addicts were treated more like humans instead of being villainized, then we could really put a dent in addiction rates. I also believe there needs to be more affordable mental health clinics available to everybody, not just to those who can afford it, and that mental health struggles need to be destigmatized. If all these things came into effect, I truly believe that addiction rates would plummet.

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2. M.R. (University of Colorado, Denver)

When considering the addiction epidemic of the United States, there is one element that is the most important, yet under-discussed: accessibility. Addiction is an illness that can affect anyone, regardless of race, gender, or economic class, yet the resources allocated to helping addicts are often inaccessible for poor or unhoused Americans.

Harm Reduction vs. Abstinence: Many Pathways for Many Patients

Rehabilitation centers are expensive, understandably, which makes them unavailable for many addicts. Healing without outside assistance is incredibly difficult, and many addicts lack adequate support systems. My philosophy does not begin with eradication, but harm reduction. Reducing risks that go hand in hand with addiction, including disease, is the first step towards general health.

Many rehab programs take an abstinence-centered approach. This works for some, but it is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Let’s take a step back and view drug usage as we view another risky behavior: teen sexual activity. Both are seen as taboo, widely considered unwise and unhealthy, and both are discouraged, with potential participants instructed to abstain. However, there is a strong correlation between states that exclusively teach abstinence for sexual education and teen pregnancy, indicating that this is not an effective practice.

Thus, we can assume that proper education must accompany abstinence with substance usage as well as sexual activity. Of course, abstinence is preferred, but simply telling a population to not do something will not prevent it from occurring.

Reducing the Stigma: Harm Reduction

But what if someone’s already addicted? Telling a person why a choice is bad does little when they’ve already made that choice. For that, again, we must take on a mindset of harm reduction. I live in Denver, Colorado, which is dealing with a major addiction crisis like many major cities. One of the places I’ve seen that receives the most foot traffic from addicts is not one of our many rehabilitation or detox centers, but the Harm Reduction Action Center one mile from the Capitol building.

Devoted to causes like preparing care packages and first aid kits, free disease testing, and providing clean needles, the HRAC treats people suffering from addiction as people, who deserve multiple avenues for healing. Someone may be trying to quit an injectable substance, for example, but if they are in constant pain due to a bloodborne disease, they may feel that they have no other options for relief.

Fentanyl Test Strips and Syringe Exchange Programs

Where the simplest answer is to remove access to the drug, there are various other ways to assist this person. Testing to make sure their supply isn’t laced, for example, or new needles to prevent sharing. Some centers even have the resources for more extensive medical care, or partner with rehabilitation centers to provide detox, if this is what the patient wants. A person cannot be helped if they don’t want help to begin with, and withdrawal often aggravates people, with a higher rate of relapse than if they gradually wean off of their substance of choice.

Ultimately, I feel that in order to reduce addiction, we must avoid demonizing it. When someone is sick, a traditional doctor can offer several paths to recovery, so it is necessary that we provide fentanyl test strips and syringe with addiction the same courtesy. A person’s vices do not override their humanity, just as a teen mom or a cancer patient is still a person. Treat an addict as a person first and treating their illness will follow.

3. A.O-O. (University of Houston)

What I believe can be done to help reduce the number of people struggling with addiction is to stop the popularization of it through media, create more alternatives that will help prevent recovering addicts to return to drugs, and also increase funding to companies that are trying to reduce the number of people suffering from addiction.

To start, there are addictive drugs that are being portrayed in the media as ‘cool’ and are mainly targeting the youth. A great example of such a drug would be electronic cigarettes, popularly known as vapes or e-cigs. Vapes are advertised in a certain way to where it can attract the younger generation, through its’ customizable colors or flavors.

The Rebranding of Old Vices in New Forms

What these people fail to realize is that this drug is simply a rebranded cigarette. Electronic cigarettes contain nicotine, which is an addictive chemical that is harmful to the body. The government should clamp down and ban the sales of vapes, including the commercials that are used to persuade the youth.

If this were to occur, the number of people who are struggling with addiction will decrease. What we fail to realize is that once a person is already addicted, they will find other means to keep their high, which means sampling into other drugs. By banning vapes, the government has also succeeded in the reduced use of other hard drugs.

Alternatives and Drug Replacement Options

Furthermore, introducing more alternatives to drugs, will also help in reducing the number of people who suffer from addiction. There are already alternatives, such as the gum or the patch for nicotine, however, this is not enough. Nicotine is not the only addictive chemical, so there should be alternatives introduced for other addictive substances used in other hard drugs.

The government should implement more alternatives for other substances that are largely impacting the population of drug users. By doing this, they are encouraging people who are in recovery to continue on their journey, by including a way to prevent going back to their old habits.

Increasing Funding for Existing Recovery Resources

Moreover, the government should also increase the funding of organizations that are trying to prevent drug use. The business for illegal substances is booming, raking in billions of dollars every year. With the money that they are getting, they have power over these organizations, and they will continue to make commercials that popularize drug use.

However, if the government were to provide funding for the drug awareness companies, then they are able to have a level playing field. With the increased funds, these companies will be able to push out commercials condemning drug use. Prevention is the best cure, so commercials or other forms of media that talk about the dangers of drug use will help decrease the number of people who struggle with drug use.

Addiction is a problem that needs to be seriously addressed in our country, with these methods that I’ve stated to help reduce substance abuse, hopefully, we will be able to eradicate this issue in due time.

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4. H.K. (Augsburg University)

In this country and all around the world there is a stigma against addiction. Addicts are frequently treated as degenerate, undesirable members of society. Whether it is through institutions such as health care systems discriminating and not giving an individual equal and adequate care, or through family systems shaming and disregarding one’s struggle with substances, these mistreatments impact an addict’s sense of self greatly.

Typically, addiction goes hand in hand with either mental illness, trauma, or possibly both. Often, there are underlying difficulties lying beneath the surface that an individual could be using substances to self-medicate in the only way they know how.

Education for the Eradication of Addiction

I believe if there is more education about what addiction is and how it does not discriminate, this could reduce the stigma and lead to a better chance at recovery for those battling addiction. Addiction is not something that just affects lower-income communities. Addiction is something that affects all categories of people and society as a whole. If there are large numbers of people withdrawn from society due to a crippling addiction, this impacts the future of our nation. Families are being torn apart and destroyed and facing this as a public health crisis rather than an individual’s moral deficiency might be a step in the right direction.

Changing the Public Perceptions of Abuse and Addiction

Perception is important, and if the general public has a better understanding of this social welfare concern, then there may be more support towards rehabilitation rather than retribution. Reforming the criminal justice system to provide more support rather than punishment is a vital step that needs to be taken. These are not broken people with no chance of being “normal” again, they are worthy of acceptance and compassion like any other person is.

After someone is incarcerated or accumulates a criminal record, obtaining lawful employment and stable housing can be extremely difficult. This might be why the rates of recidivism are so high. If we offer better support and resources for those attempting to reintegrate into society this may help with lessening the number of people who return to using substances.

Breaking the Cycles of Stigma and Shame

As someone who this affects directly, I feel passionate about this topic. When I was in active addiction the way I was treated by others, whether it be my family or those in the health care field, I felt shame and disgust from them which only furthered my justification to use. If I had felt support and compassion, I may have been inclined to get clean sooner. Addicts are often hurt and broken people masking their pain with drugs, and this is often overlooked. Overall, I think what we can all do to help solve this societal concern is display attitudes of empathy and support rather than judgment. This can make a world of a difference.