The manner in which sickness or illness is treated by society changes dramatically depending on the illness in question. Cancer, for example, is treated with fear and pity, but it is also treated with reverence and respect. Most other serious physical diseases or illnesses are treated in a similar fashion. Mental illnesses, however, are treated quite differently. They are treated with suspicion, skepticism, denial, and even blame.
However, as unfairly as mental disorders are treated, none are treated with the same disdain as addiction. That’s because addiction is not treated like an illness—it’s treated like a character flaw. And although some mental illnesses experience this as well at times, it is not as pervasive or widespread as it is with addiction. As a recovering drug addict, I am reminded of how prevalent this mindset is in multiple areas of my life.
In our language:
I saw a drawing on Instagram a while back about how mental disorders should not be used as adjectives and I absolutely loved it at first. Check it out below:
It’s brilliant, right? That’s what I thought—until I noticed that it fails to include one disorder that is used as an adjective more often than any other: addiction. People use addiction to describe how much they love something in almost any context.
“Oh my god, you have to start watching this show, I’m addicted to it!”
“I swear, I’m such a coffee addict—I drink like 5 cups a day.”
“Yas, girl, let’s go be alcoholics tonight!”
I hear these references and I wonder why it is that addiction, a chronic brain disease that affects at least 23 million Americans, is deemed an acceptable adjective to use, while other disorders, mental or otherwise, are not. Its exclusion from this graphic and from the discussion in general about the stigmatizing way mental disorders are used in our everyday language is telling of the way society views addiction.
It tells me that people do concern themselves with not wanting to use language that might trivialize and further stigmatize serious conditions, but not when it comes to addiction. It tells me that people do not take into consideration the millions of people whose lives have been ruined by drug addiction when they choose to equate their overconsumption of fries or coffee or cupcakes to being an addict in their Instagram bio. It tells me that people are more than happy to belittle alcoholism, a disease that leads to over 80,000 deaths per year, as nothing more than a night out with friends. No wonder addiction is treated like it’s not an actual disorder: that’s the message we communicate every single day.
In media representation:
Hollywood sure does jump at the chance to include an addict in their storyline. We always make the juiciest characters. We are either heavily glamorized—with our substance abuse making us appear as though we are all tortured-artist types with deep-seated issues that only make us more mysterious, fascinating, and intriguing—or we are portrayed on the opposite end of the spectrum: as the dregs of society who do nothing but destroy everything and everyone in our path because we are waste-of-space tweakers with one brain cell left. Neither representation is particularly beneficial to us in the real world… like, at all.
Glamorizing substance abuse does several things. It lessens the severity of addiction, making it seem like a fun pastime, when in reality it’s a debilitating disorder. It also makes more people want to abuse substances so that they can attain that sexy persona, when the only things they will attain are health consequences or even a lifelong disease. And lastly: it makes it that much harder for people to recognize addiction when it occurs in real life. Are you just getting a little wild with friends like you’re supposed to, or do you actually have a problem? Is your sister just coping with her breakup, or does she need help stopping her alcohol abuse? The manner in which substance abuse is glamorized on television blurs the lines between getting drunk and being a drunk, between coping and needing, between fun and addiction.
Demonizing substance abuse is just as harmful, but in different ways. It openly perpetuates the negative stereotypes already associated with addiction, therefore spreading misinformation about a condition that people desperately need to be educated about. It also creates shame within the addiction community itself. If the only image we have to compare ourselves to is one that can’t recover or stop hurting people, then that’s exactly what we’ll expect of ourselves.
Imagine a world in which people who are recovering from cancer do so in a support group that prides itself on keeping their members anonymous to avoid social stigma. Yeah, I can’t imagine it, either. Yet the standard for treatment of addiction, which is a devastating illness just like cancer, is Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. These types of groups were founded on the concept that anonymity is the key to healthy recovery. Yet how can an individual come to terms with their affliction and take the steps toward recovery if their treatment plan is based on hiding that part of themselves?
I completely support an individual’s choice to remain anonymous throughout their recovery if they choose to, but the name and identity of general addiction treatment should not be founded in anonymity. That not only results in failure to spread helpful information and education on a widespread health issue—it solidifies the stigma that addiction is bad and should be swept under the rug. In order to end the stigma outside the addiction community, the stigma must be ended within the addiction community first.
Every child in America is told from a very young age to just say no to drugs because drugs are bad and the people who do them are bad. This message usually comes from a program like D.A.R.E., whose name stands for Drug Abuse Resistance Education. D.A.R.E. is actually taught by law enforcement officers and relies heavily on a little tactic called fear-mongering. Although this program means well, it effectively associates drug and alcohol abuse with criminality and has similar results to abstinence-only education programs. People still end up doing drugs, but they have very little education about substance abuse beyond the fact that it is illegal and bad for your health. And as for those who do become addicted or abuse a substance? They’ve been taught that drug addicts are criminals or delinquents—so they don’t reach out or ask for help. This manner of prevention not only ineffective, but it’s harmful.
An effective addiction prevention program would focus on comprehensive substance abuse education. It would discuss the nature of the disease as well as inform individuals about the stigma and stereotypes surrounding addiction, rather than contribute to the stigma itself.