Recovery Month 2011: Getting Rid of Addiction Stigma

Throughout the month of September, initiatives surrounding its designation as National Alcohol and Drug Addiction Recovery Month have promoted recovery and supported the growth of healthy, resilient individuals and families in the United States.

When President Barack Obama acknowledged this annual event, his proclamation underscored the reality that alcohol and other drugs threaten the future of millions of Americans. “Abuse of prescription medication has reached epidemic levels, drunk and drugged driving pose significant threats to public safety,” the President noted. “As a nation, we must strive to promote second chances and recognize each individual’s ability to overcome adversity.”

However, despite national efforts to increase education and recovery programs, many Americans question if we are actually winning this battle. What have we learned in recent years and are we on the right track?

For some answers, I spoke with my MHA-NYC colleague Dr. Ellen Friedman, a psychotherapist with extensive experience as a clinical director at many substance abuse treatment programs.

As Dr. Friedman noted, technology now plays a disturbing role in the promotion of drug and alcohol abuse.

“When you search online, it’s easy to find blogs extolling the virtues of drugs, websites to order them directly, and videos identifying how best to use them,” she said. “Popular music and television often promote substance abuse as a popular, commonplace activity. It can be argued, therefore, that technological advancement presents the opportunity for alcohol and substance abuse to be promoted, facilitated and normalized.”

As a result, substance abuse has become more generally accepted and common among a range of demographics. Dr. Friedman pointed out that 4.7 percent of Americans age 50 and older used illicit drugs during the past year — a figure that is on the rise.

Of particular concern for Dr. Friedman is the impact on younger Americans.

“For generation X, prescription drug abuse and binge drinking are becoming ever more acceptable,” she said. “Almost half of teens say that they do not see a great risk in heavy daily drinking and 1 in 5 teens have abused prescription medicines. Most either don’t understand or simply ignore the risks.”

At the same time, Dr. Friedman believes that we have increased our understanding of addiction. This is good news for helping families and communities in the future.

“Based on advances in scientific understanding, how we define addiction has changed,” she noted. “It is now accepted wisdom in the field of substance abuse that addiction is a disease, specifically a chronic disease of brain rewards, motivation, memory and related circuitry.”

As we learn more about the long lasting effects of drugs on the brain, Dr. Friedman believes it’s time to change our perspective on the disease and its victims.

“The profile of the addict as an amoral thrill-seeker is not only pernicious but scientifically wrong. As noted by the Institute of Medicine, stigmatizing people who need treatment results in the unwillingness of individuals to seek treatment as well as the reluctance of some medical professionals to treat people with addiction problems.”

Recovery Month 2011 has certainly helped increase awareness and support for this important issue. As Dr. Friedman firmly believes, we now have an opportunity to shift the emphasis to the problem rather than the person. Let us correct our perception of those who abuse substances to reflect current understandings that support humane, non-judgmental and comprehensive treatment.


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