We’ve fought hard to reduce the stigma around mental health – now the same must be done for addiction

Lucy Nichol

Addiction. The very word can conjure frightening images and that’s not without reason. It’s frightening, harmful and distressing. But all too often, are we blaming our anxieties on the addict, as opposed to the disease?

I was involved in conducting some research in late 2019 with over 1,200 respondents that found that one in three people believe addicts “brought it on themselves”. So my assumption that we are all too often blaming the addict is correct.

In some ways, it’s understandable. If you haven’t experienced addiction, it’s difficult to comprehend how somebody can seemingly throw their lives away for a “high”. I’ve thought that myself in the past. But now, as a trustee of the Road to Recovery Trust, and having lost friends to drugs and alcohol over the years, I’ve come to learn that it’s a far more complex issue than it might first appear.

I’ve heard our Trust CEO, Peter Mitchell, who is himself in recovery from alcoholism, talk about how it’s not as simple as whether or not you picked up that first drink. Many of us drink alcohol – but we’re not all alcoholics. So what is it that separates those of us who develop an addiction from those of us who can enjoy a few beers and emerge from it with nothing more than a fleeting headache?

There are many routes into addiction, but picking up that first drink or drug isn’t usually the beginning of the problem. So many people we see at our recovery cafe in Newcastle are dealing with complex mental health problems, traumatic experiences or other difficult life challenges. And then, on top of these problems, you might discover a lack of support within a family unit or community, financial difficulties and so much more.

In fact, as I’ve learned from a course on public health, the ecological factors involved in health issues are more complex than you’d assume. Yes, there are individual drivers – who you are, your personality, your age, genetics, etc. But there are so many others to consider. Do you have strong family or educational support? What is your school teaching you about drugs and alcohol? What do your friends think? How is your community responding to addiction? What does the law say?

All of these variables combine and this is why addiction is far more complicated than we tend to treat it.

Remember, not everyone who picks up a drink becomes an alcoholic, and not everyone who experiences trauma becomes an addict. Addiction is not a lifestyle choice. More often than not, it’s a form of self-medication. It’s a way of silencing the noise that traumatic memories generate. It’s a way of blocking out the pain or fear associated with mental health problems.

I’ve actually heard some people say that if they hadn’t had alcohol or substances as their coping mechanism, they probably wouldn’t be alive today, because suicide would have taken them early. But of course, this coping mechanism is temporary – and leads to terrible problems and crises eventually anyway – suicide being one of them. Having been driven to acute crisis point by addiction, those people I listened to are incredibly lucky to be alive.

The other thing to remember is that when physical dependency has taken hold, acting on an addiction is a way of being normal. Most addicts aren’t experiencing a “high” – they just need the substance to function. In fact, in the case of alcohol – it’s sometimes safer for the addict to take a drink, than not to, as withdrawal without professional help can kill.

There’s a saying in 12-step recovery that “secrets keep you sick” – and this is the problem with addiction stigma. If you’re in active addiction and you know that you’re likely to be blamed for your illness, why would you speak out? Going one step further (and this is a huge problem in addiction) you might not even allow yourself to believe you’re an addict because surely you can’t be as bad as they make out? It’s a similar issue with close family and friends – they, too, can be in denial about their loved one’s problems.

Denial is a killer. The disease thrives on it, and the individual continues to suffer. Until you’ve dealt with your own denial, you’re not going to seek help. And the addiction will continue slowly – or suddenly in some cases – killing you.

But stigma isn’t something we need to fight solely with the general public – policies and practices need to change. A social worker friend of mine who works with people with severe mental health problems and addictions recognises the inequalities in day-to-day life they often face. For example, he said that if you live with depression, you can get a sick note from your GP, and your employer will, thankfully these days, more than likely accept that sick note.

Can an addict get a sick note if they’re trying to withdraw, or if they’ve relapsed or hit crisis point? It’s not as likely, is it? But it should be. Because in trying to cope silently with it, they’ll likely continue using and become even more unwell.

We need GPs, employers and policymakers pushing for change as much as we need the public to accept that addicts are not trying to be difficult. They are not trying to break the law. They are not trying to drain health service resources. They are trying to stay alive.

At the end of the day, if we hate the idea of addiction so much because of its impact in society, then I believe the only way we can get rid of it is to show compassion to addicts. You might not be able to step in their shoes, but think about it – would anyone choose a life of fear and pain?

Lucy Nichol is a writer and communications advisor. She is the author of ‘A Series of Unfortunate Stereotypes’, a book about mental health stigma

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