Despite being officially recognized as a brain disease for more than thirty years, Substance Use Disorder’s designation as such is continually ridiculed and stigmatized by people both inside and outside the recovery community. You may have seen the recent viral video posted by “Arthur Vines,” which has garnered more than 18 million views on Facebook. In the video, he shames a friend (played by himself), calling him a “weak addict” and declaring that addiction is not a disease, but a choice.
What “Arthur Vines” lacks in medical expertise and research, he makes up for with arrogance and a large fanbase. I understand the frustration and resentment towards addiction, but the impact of media meant to shame those suffering from addiction is not helping.
Does it matter whether or not addiction is a disease?
A 2013 study by the American Psychiatric Association found an estimated 22.7 million Americans were in need of treatment for a substance use disorder that had occurred within that year. Of those people, only 2.5 million received the professional help needed for a chance at recovery. More than 60,000 people die each year from drug overdoses in the United States. For more than a decade, I fell in within the 90% of people who needed help but did not receive it. Like many, I was always afraid to admit that I was struggling with substance use because of the attached stigma and social consequences that came along with the labels.
Declarations like “addiction is not a disease” or “you chose to be a junkie” only perpetuates the stigma and shame surrounding Substance Use Disorder. We don’t need to agree that addiction is a disease to admit that it’s a public health crisis and people are dying at an alarming rate. Silence is killing those who suffer from addiction—silence caused by stigma because those addicted fear being ridiculed and shamed by their peers.
The most effective treatment for Substance Use Disorder is the frequent, consistent and long-term connection with healthy individuals and clinicians. Let’s not create additional barriers to sustained recovery by perpetuating stigma and discouraging clinical treatment. The system is far from perfect, but proper treatment does work. If we can agree that addiction is a major public health crisis, and move with empathy instead of resentment, we can make a massive difference in our communities.
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