Recently there has been a push to destigmatize mental illness. And yet, excluded from this effort has been the issue of substance abuse.
To me there seems to still be an acceptance of judging and treating addicts like their illness is their own fault. I would know, I was an addict.
Do you know how many times I was asked “why don’t you just stop?” Or people who treated me like my drug addiction was completely my fault? Just imagine for a second if we treated other people with illnesses the same way. Do we judge someone who has gained weight and acquired Type 2 diabetes?
Do we tell a person with depression to just stop? Do we treat people differently when they tell us they have a mental illness? We shouldn’t, so why is it acceptable when directed towards addicts?
There is also a tendency for people with drug problems to be treated poorly when receiving medical care. My close friend went to the hospital multiple times with an infection in his leg from injecting, and the third time he returned to the hospital it was an emergency. The nurses then scolded him for waiting so long to come in, even though both times previously he had been turned away.
He was honest with the nurses about the cause of his infection. Was he supposed to hide the true nature of his injury? No, because how is a nurse supposed to treat someone if they lie about their infection?
I luckily never had to deal with the medical system for any kind of drug related incident.
The great comedian Mitch Hedberg had a great joke about drug addiction.
“Alcoholism is a disease, but it’s the only disease you can get yelled at for having. Goddamn it Otto, you are an alcoholic! Goddamn it Otto, you have Lupus! One of those two doesn’t sound right.”
Obviously mental illness and drug addiction are different experiences. But a very high percentage of those with addictions have some form of mental illness. Many times they are self-medicating for undiagnosed conditions.
I know I did, as someone who has struggled with depression and anxiety since I was a child. I would do drugs or drink as a way of relieving anxiety and depression. It works temporarily, but makes your problems even worse in the long run.
So let’s destigmatize drug addiction as well as mental illness. We must treat addiction as a public health crisis facing our society, not a moral failing.