The best way to reduce the stigma of addiction is to recognize it is a disease and treat it as such.
One of the reasons parents like myself find our child’s addiction so bewildering is because of the changes in their behavior. From seemingly well-adjusted, happy, fun-loving children they become deceptive, manipulative and dishonest adolescents and young adults. Every parent wants to trust their child and drug abuse robs them from maintaining that trust. But rather than viewing addiction as a moral failure on the part of our child or as a result of our parenting, we must start to view addiction as a disease.
In his new book, Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedy, David Sheff, the author of Beautiful Boy about his own struggle with his son’s meth addiction, writes that addiction must be considered a disease devoid of moral overtones. Like other diseases, such as cardiac disease, diabetes and cancer, addiction has a substantial genetic component. Genes are now thought to account for approximately 50% of addiction risk. In addition, stress, mental illness and poverty are major risk factors.
Drugs change the brain. Psychoactive drugs artificially stimulate and over-stimulate dopamine flow in the brain resulting in a powerful reward: intense pleasure. The pleasure comes in a variety of forms: some people feel energized, others feel extremely confident, others intensely sensual, and yet others dreamy or sedated. With use over time, the drug alters the reward system in the brain and no longer effects the same euphoria. As a result, the person needs more. Sheff writes, “Because the brain has adapted to the presence of the drug, people don’t get high any longer, but not only don’t they get high, they don’t feel normal.” This increases the need for more of the drug just to feel normal. Imagine that—becoming drug dependent to feel normal.
As we know, society judges the person who uses drugs as a bad person. Because our addiction-treatment system at the present time is so ineffective, it is assumed that addicts can’t get well because they are weak willed and hopeless. The stigma of addiction is based on the assumption that good people don’t use drugs; only bad people do.
This stigma first affects teenagers who experiment, adults who seek recovery, family members who look the other way, public policy and treatment, and explains why most insurance plans don’t adequately cover addiction treatment in spite of a bill passed by Congress requiring such coverage. In addition, there’s little money for research into addiction, reducing the potential for effective treatment options.
Sheff states that the stigma and secrecy associated with drug use “has contributed to the escalation of use and has hampered treatment more than any single other factor.”
- Why We Should Treat, Not Blame Addicts Struggling to Get ‘Clean’ (pbs.org)
- Watch: Author of ‘Clean’ on fighting drug addiction (tv.msnbc.com)
- 5 Myths About Addiction that Undermine Recovery (psychologytoday.com)