Changing perceptions on addiction

Alcoholics are old men sitting on park benches stinking of booze. Whilst drug addicts are crazy-eyed teenage boys shooting up in derelict buildings.

Fortunately, we suspect you’d struggle to find anyone to agree with either of those simplistic statements.

Now, changing perceptions of addiction mean we’re better educated to realise drug and alcohol abuse and dependence is far more nuanced and doesn’t only affect certain people. Addiction can and does affect everyone. All sectors of society, all backgrounds, all professions can and are affected by addiction.

However, whilst we may recognise this, does it mean the taboo around addiction has gone? Some research suggests that attempts to educate on addiction and remove stigma still have some way to go.

We don’t want to associate with addicts

In a recent study on public perceptions of behavioural and substance addiction, by Bowling Green State University in the US, participants tended to recognise that addicts did not necessarily desire to use substances or engage in certain behaviours. Survey respondents were more likely to think physiological or psychological dependence were at the root of addiction.

Yet participants answers indicated they were also generally unwilling to affiliate with an individual affected by addiction whether it be to pornography, gambling, alcohol, maijuana or heroin. The desire to be distanced from those with addictions was still very much in place.

Personal stories break down taboos

When Prince Harry spoke out about mental health issues and teamed up with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to launch Heads Together, they fuelled a campaign to remove the stigma around it.

One of the primary objectives was in recognising the value and power of people being open about their own struggles – and encouraging them to share. It is now becoming increasingly common for people to have the courage to speak out about their mental health challenges and to be applauded for doing so. Society is pushing for increased support and understanding on mental ill health.

Mental health struggles and addiction are closely linked

It will be of little surprise to anyone who has studied addiction to discover that two of the original poster people for the Heads Together launch, Stephen Fry and Ruby Wax, have not only struggled with their mental health but addiction too. Addiction and mental health struggles are closely linked.

Another star who opened up about his mental health battles, Professor Green has long spoken about addiction and mental health issues going hand-in-hand.

If we can continue to break the taboo and stigma associated with mental ill health, we can do the same for addiction.

Moving beyond punishment and blame

Fun is not a word you perhaps expect to see associated with addiction treatment and rehab, yet it is increasingly becoming so.

A new private rehab centre, Delamere, says on its website: “Yes, there’s a lot of hard work involved, but that’s balanced by plenty of fun, such as movie nights, art therapy, music and dance.”

It’s an example of how treatment is moving away from punishment, blame and shame. You can have fun in rehab because you deserve happiness, support and a future. Yes, there’ll be pain and regret to work through in relation to addiction, but seeking and entering treatment should be the beginning of something new, something better.

So are perceptions of addiction changing?

There are positive signs of more understanding for addicts, alcoholics and those with addictive behaviours.

Respondents in the Bowling Green State University study cited physiological and psychological factors as most likely at the root of addictions, perhaps indicating a shift away from blame.

Celebrities and those with influence, like Professor Green, are speaking out about the links between mental ill health and addiction – and much is being done to reduce stigma around mental health issues.

And there is evidence that treatment providers are increasingly recognising that those who have face addiction need support and compassion.

Together we are relieving the judgement related to addiction and perceptions do seem to be changing – slowly.

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